SA court to rule on Oscar Pistorius appeal

Pretoria: A South African judge will rule Tuesday on whether to grant a state appeal that would open the way for Oscar Pistorius to serve more time behind bars for shooting his girlfriend.

Oscar Pistorius
Oscar Pistorius

Prosecution lawyers applied for an appeal after Judge Thokozile Masipa in October sentenced the Paralympic gold medallist to five years in jail after a trial that attracted worldwide interest. The judge found him guilty of culpable homicide, also known as manslaughter, rather than a more serious charge of murdering Reeva Steenkamp.

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel argued in appeal papers filed last month that Judge Masipa misinterpreted the law when she ruled Pistorius did not intentionally shoot Steenkamp, describing the sentence as "shockingly light" and "inappropriate." Pistorius, a South African athletics superstar after the double amputee competed against able-bodied runners in the Olympics, can qualify for house arrest after serving one sixth of his sentence -- 10 months -- behind bars, which would mean he could serve the majority of his sentence outside prison walls.

Should Judge Masipa grant the appeal, the case will be heard in South Africa's Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein, the country's judicial capital. Pistorius admits shooting Steenkamp four times through a locked toilet door on Valentine's Day 2013. But the judge may not necessarily grant the appeal, siding with defence lawyers representing the athlete who say her interpretation of the law was correct.

If Masipa refuses to grant the appeal, the state can petition the decision, a common legal strategy in South Africa. "I honestly don't think that Masipa would refuse leave to appeal, there's just too much controversy about the judgement," said Martin Hood, a criminal lawyer based in Johannesburg. "It doesn't matter what the outcome of the appeal is, if the appeal is allowed then other judges will be able to comment on the decision, and that's critical," said Hood, who has been following the Pistorius case throughout the year.

'Effective legal system'
Hood said that with the decision of a Cape Town court on Monday to throw out the Shrien Dewani case -- another high-profile murder trial involving a beautiful young woman killed in the dead of night -- South Africa's courts need to demonstrate they are rigorous and fair. "From a perception point of view, both public and internationally, we need to tell everybody that we have a robust and effective legal system."

Pistorius, who celebrated his 28th birthday last month, has been serving his sentence in a Pretoria prison. "He's encountering many beautiful stories from prisoners. There are people there who have committed crimes but whose lives have changed," said his older brother Carl, in an interview with You magazine, a South African tabloid. Pistorius has been accused of receiving special treatment in South Africa's notoriously corrupt prisons, where there is frequent reports of inmates using cellphones and even drinking alcohol behind bars.

Yet Carl dismissed claims his brother is living the good life, saying Pistorius relies on weekly 45-minute visits with his family to leave cash at the canteen so he can supplement his standard prison diet with tasty snacks, including baked beans and canned pilchards (small fish). "He now lives moment by moment," said Carl. "There's no fairytale."

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