How a South African Olympic medalist left stadiums for prison: the trial and appeals of Oscar Pistorius

Oscar Pistorius, South African Olympic runner, will receive his prison sentence next month for murdering his girlfriend back in 2013.

Photo by Jordi Matas (Demotix/Corbis).

South Africa’s Constitutional court has denied an appeal by Oscar Pistorius over his 2013 murder conviction in the shooting of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.  This means that sentencing on the murder conviction will proceed around early April.  The government could seek a sentence of fifteen years or more in prison.

The story of Oscar Pistorius, once a world famous athlete from South Africa, is familiar to many.  As a double-amputee who became an Olympic runner, he truly represented a modern-day hero in so many ways.  Pistorius had both legs amputated at eleven months old due to medical necessity.  Despite the odds, he not only was able to walk as a child, but became involved in running.  Pistorius competed several times in the Paralympics, winning multiple medals.  He then went on to become the first amputee to compete in the Olympics, and was often referred to as the “blade runner” for his blade running plates he used.

So, what happened to this famous athlete to make him leave Olympic stadiums for a South Africa prison?

On February 14, 2013, Reeva Steenkamp was shot and killed in the house that she shared with Pistorius around three o’clock in the morning.  Pistorius claimed that he thought Reeva was a home intruder and that his life was in danger, thereby prompting him to shout several times and then shoot four times into the bathroom doorway.

While Pistorius claimed self-defense, the prosecution focused on reports from neighbors stating that they had heard a couple arguing soon before hearing four shots.

Justice Leach, who was part of the five-justice panel on the high court in South Africa, said,

This case involves a human tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.  A young man overcomes huge physical disabilities to reach Olympian heights as an athlete.  In doing so he becomes an international celebrity, he meets a young woman of great natural beauty and a successful model, romance blossoms, and then, ironically on Valentine’s Day, all is destroyed when he takes her life.

South Africa has similar self-defense laws to the United States, mainly in regards to the right to self-defense in a home invasion.  If there is an intruder inside a person’s house, that person has the right to defend themselves if they truly believe their life is in danger.  The case revolved around the defense arguing Pistorius had a reasonable fear for his life and safety, while the prosecution argued that Pistorius knew it was Reeva in the bathroom before he shot her.

Pistorius was ultimately found guilty of culpable homicide, a crime equivalent to manslaughter in the United States.

The trial took place over the course of forty-one days and was presented to a judge and two assessors, with no jury involved.  South Africa does not have juries in criminal trials, unlike the United States.  This is due to a 1969 law in South Africa that abolished jury trials altogether for policy reasons.  The assessors have a voice in adjudicating guilt or innocence, but the judge has the sole power over sentencing.

Pistorius was ultimately found guilty of culpable homicide, a crime equivalent to manslaughter in the United States.  The judge in the case, Judge Thokozile Masipa stated there was not enough evidence to support the idea that Pistorius knew Reeva Steenkamp was the person in the house before shooting.  Therefore, Jude Masipa found him guilty of culpable homicide instead of premeditated murder.  Based on this culpable homicide conviction, he was sentenced to five years in prison.  However, Pistorius served approximately one year in prison before he was put on house arrest.

Although South Africa does have double jeopardy protection, prosecutors are still permitted to appeal convictions and sentences to higher courts.

In 2014, prosecutors for the case applied to appeal the conviction and sentence, stating that the sentence was “shockingly inappropriate” given the circumstances.  Prosecutors had also argued that it was foreseeable that by firing several shots into the door Pistorius would kill someone.  Although Judge Masipa granted the request to appeal the conviction, she denied the request to appeal the sentence.

South Africa allows prosecutors to appeal a conviction or sentence to a higher court.  In the United States, this could not have happened under double jeopardy principles because prosecutors are not allowed to appeal criminal convictions or sentences in order to retry the defendant.  Although South Africa does have double jeopardy protection, prosecutors are still permitted to appeal convictions and sentences to higher courts.

The five justices on the appellate panel found arguments by the prosecution to be convincing. 

 In late 2015, Pistorius had his conviction reversed by the South Africa Supreme Appellate Court.  However, instead of sending his case back down to a lower court for resolution, the Appeals court found Pistorius guilty of the higher charge of murder.  The five justices on the appellate panel found arguments by the prosecution to be convincing.  The court in its ruling stated that many of the lower court rulings were erroneous; including misinterpretation of the law as well as an erroneous exclusion of circumstantial evidence in the case.  Justice Lorimer Eric Leach of the high court explained the ruling was because “the accused ought to have been found guilty of murder on the basis that he had fired the fatal shots with criminal intent.”

Specifically, the appellate court found that the trial court had misinterpreted the law of dolus eventualis, which means that a person may be convicted of murder if they foresaw their actions would result in the death of a person, but they continued them anyway.  The trial court found this law did not apply to Pistorius because the judge determined he could not have foreseen his actions would lead to Reeva’s death.

However, the appellate court made clear in its ruling that Pistorius did not specifically need to foresee his actions would cause Reeva’s death, but that his actions could cause the death of anyone.  Ultimately, the identity of the person killed was irrelevant to the court.

After the murder conviction, Pistorius filed an appeal with the Constitutional court in South Africa. 

The trial and appeal process have been full of legal battles, appeals, and sentencing hearings.  When asked about the murder conviction for Pistorius, Reeva’s father said that the decision represented some closure.  “I would hope to God that all of this could have been prevented, but seeing that it has been done, let us now all get on with our lives,” he said.  After the murder conviction, Pistorius filed an appeal with the Constitutional court in South Africa.  That appeal was denied just over a week ago and represented the last avenue of reversal for the conviction.

Pistorius will remain on house arrest in South Africa until his upcoming sentencing hearing on April 18, 2016, where he will be sentenced for his murder conviction.  Pistorius will likely face a minimum sentence of fifteen years or more in prison absent exceptional circumstances.

Olivia Bouffard, Staff Writer
About Olivia Bouffard, Staff Writer (12 Articles)
Olivia Bouffard is a 2016 graduate and served as a Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. She graduated from UNC-Wilmington with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science in 2013. Following her first year of law school, Olivia participated in a study abroad program at Cambridge University. During the Fall 2014 semester she interned with Judge Stanford L. Steelman, Jr. at the North Carolina Court of Appeals. Olivia worked with the Department of Public Instruction as a legal intern with the State Board of Education during the summer before her third year.