JOHANNESBURG - Oscar Pistorius is no stranger to second chances.
The superstar South African athlete was born without fibula bones, and had both legs amputated as a baby. That didn’t stop him from crossing boundaries and becoming the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics, in 2012.
His fortunes changed in the early morning hours of Feb 14, 2013, when he shot dead his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, at his Pretoria home. He claims he mistook her for an intruder and did not mean to kill her. That became the central point of contention at his epic murder trial, which riveted international attention, stretched over the better part of a year and ended with his conviction on a lesser charge of culpable homicide -- known in the U.S. as manslaughter -- and a five-year prison sentence. Under South African law, he could be eligible for parole in as little as 10 months.
But now, it’s his prosecutors who want a second chance -- to punish him more severely for his crime. If they are granted that wish, he could face a decision from a higher court. If that court convicts him of murder, he could spend up to 15 years behind bars.
South Africans roundly criticized the original sentence and verdict when they were handed down in September and October. The women’s league of the ruling African National Congress was a constant presence during the trial. The league said his trial was emblematic of South Africa’s scourge of gender violence, though the court saw no evidence that Pistorius ever physically abused Steenkamp.
"What is at issue here isn’t just the sentence, but the very law that resulted in Mr Pistorius being convicted of culpable homicide instead of murder ... we want it struck down," said Women’s League spokeswoman Edna Molewa.
Murder conviction sought
On Tuesday, state prosecutor Gerrie Nel stood before Judge Thokozile Masipa and asked for a second chance of his own. Nel, who is often called “the bulldog” for his persistence, argued for a harsher sentence and a murder conviction, saying the five-year sentence was “shockingly inappropriate.” Nel’s appeal rests on the premise that Masipa, a seasoned judge, misinterpreted the law in her verdict and sentence. South Africa does not have jury trials.
“It’s inconceivable that he had any intention other than to kill that person or accepted that he may,” argued Nel. “An innocent woman was shot and killed in most horrendous circumstances. The deceased must have been unbelievably fearful before she died … And it was caused by the gross negligence of this respondent. The accused fired four shots. He knew there was someone in the cubicle with no escape.”
Judge has final say
But it could be hard to persuade Masipa, the deliberate jurist who said in her lengthy ruling: “The state has not proved beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of premeditated murder. There are just not enough facts to support such a finding.'’
For Masipa to grant an appeal, she must accept that she misinterpreted the law -- a leap that may prove difficult. She said she will return with a decision on Wednesday.
But the one person who truly knows what happened on that fateful night was nowhere to be seen on Tuesday. Oscar Pistorius remained in his cell at Pretoria’s Kgosi Mampuru II prison.