Oscar Pistorius Sentencing: Could Blade Runner Escape Jail?

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Oscar Pistorius' future will be decided Tuesday when he is sentenced for the fatal shooting of his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. The disgraced Olympic sprinter faces as much as 15 years in prison for the Valentine’s Day 2013 killing, for which he was convicted of culpable homicide — similar to manslaughter — last month.

As a trial that opened more than seven months ago reaches its conclusion, here's what you need to know about the final act:

Why has the sentencing taken so long?

The original trial, at which Judge Thokozile Masipa found the double-amputee not guilty of murder, lasted six months. There is no mandatory jail term for culpable homicide, leaving her with a wide choice of options in deciding the sprinter’s punishment.

The sentencing hearing, which began Oct. 13, heard from six witnesses, including Pistorius’ agent, the victim’s cousin and the head of South Africa’s prison system. Each witness was cross-examined, creating what became effectively a mini-trial over the athlete’s behavior and his background.

What sentence could Pistorius get?

The maximum prison sentence for culpable homicide in South Africa is 15 years. However, Masipa could instead give him a suspended sentence to be served at home under state supervision, a sort of house arrest. She could also impose a community service order.

Any non-custodial sentence is likely to spark public anger in South Africa, where many sense that privileged whites receive preferential treatment in the court system two decades after the end of the apartheid system of white minority rule. Masipa is only the second black female judge in South Africa.

What did the prosecution want?

State lawyer Gerrie Nel called for Pistorius to spend at least a decade behind bars, telling the hearing: “The minimum term that society will be happy with will be 10 years imprisonment. This is a serious matter. The negligence borders on intent. Ten years is the minimum.''

Defense lawyer Barry Roux said a community-based sentence was more appropriate because of the remorse Pistorius had shown. He said there was "no deviousness" and "no conscious unlawfulness" from the athlete, who actions “were to some extent dominated by vulnerability and anxiety."

Roux told the hearing. “He's lost everything. He was an icon in the eyes of South Africans. He wants to make good as far as possible. Serious regard should be given to a community-based sentence so something good can come out of this."

However, Nel said a supervised community order would still allow Pistorius to train and compete in athletics and would amount to “no sentence” at all, describing Roux’s proposal as “shockingly disproportionate,” adding, "We shouldn't fail the parents. We shouldn't fail society.”

What did we learn from the sentencing hearing?

The facts of the killing were not re-examined in detail, but one witness — Pistorius’ probation officer — revealed that the runner had been making monthly payments to Steenkamp’s family totaling $10,300. The cash was paid in 19 instalments in advance of a possible civil law settlement, Reeva’s parents, Barry and June, later confirmed in a statement. However, the family has decided not to pursue a civil claim and so the money will be returned. Pistorius also offered a lump sum of $34,000, but the Steenkamps rejected it as “blood money,” the court heard.

The runner’s lawyer also revealed that Pistorius had run out of money and couldn’t even pay his legal expenses. “He's not only broke, but he's broken,” Roux said. “There is nothing left of this man,” Roux said. “He has nothing left."

Will Pistorius’ disability affect change his sentence?

Pistorius, named ‘Blade Runner’ because of the prosthetics legs he uses on the track, would be housed in the hospital wing of the jail, prison service chief Zach Modise told the hearing. He said there was no practical reason why Pistorius should not receive a prison sentence. "We have modified entrances; we have put in ramps in our entrances; we have put up rails in our showers and also in our baths,” he said.

The probation officer said the sporting icon was at risk of becoming a high-profile target for South Africa’s notorious prison gangs, but this was angrily dismissed by Nel, who said Pistorius had “shamelessly” used his disability in court. The sprinter had once battled for the right to compete alongside able-bodied athletes but was now trying to argue that jail was an unsuitable punishment because of the lack of facilities for the disabled, Nel told the hearing.

What’s next for the families?

Pistorius’ brother and sister said Monday they have no doubts that he is telling the truth about the shooting and that they'll stand by him no matter what. In her first interview since the killing, Aimee Pistorius described the double-amputee Olympian as a “kind person, generous, sometimes to a fault,” with “a good heart.”

“I do not doubt my brother at all. I have the privileged position of knowing my brother - his strengths, his faults as you do when you're as close as we are," she told NBC News. "People who think maliciously are so far from the truth.”

Steenkamp’s cousin, Kim Martin, revealed that her family tried not to mention Pistorius’ name and that she was still “very fearful” of him. “My family are not people who are seeking revenge, we just feel … taking somebody's life, to shoot somebody behind the door that is unarmed, that is harmless needs sufficient punishment,” she said, adding that the sprinter “needs to pay for what he has done.”