Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius faces a return to prison for killing his girlfriend if prosecutors succeed in changing his culpable homicide verdict to murder.
Johannesburg (dpa) – The fate of Paralympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius rests next week with appeals court judges who will decide whether he is guilty of the greater crime of murder in the 2013 killing of his girlfriend.
He could also be sent back to prison after his release this month following a year behind bars.
Legal experts said the case hinges on whether the athlete, 28, could have known he could kill someone while firing gunshots through the bathroom door of his Pretoria home on Valentine’s Day two years ago. They also said judges should be quick with a judgement.
Pretoria criminal lawyer Karen van Eck said the state’s challenge of the original verdict of culpable homicide is relatively simple and it shouldn’t take the court long to reach a decision.
“The judges should have reached before the appeal starts,” she said of Tuesday’s hearing before the Supreme Court of Appeals, based in the central South African city of Bloemfontein.
“In the hearing, they’ll fire questions at the prosecution and defence so that they can clear up any remaining doubts they may have,” van Eck said.
The matter is expected to be heard in one day with arguments coming from prosecutor Gerrie Nel and Pistorius’ defence team, led by Barry Roux.
A written verdict is expected within days of the hearing.
Roux said in arguments filed with the court in August that a lower court found that Pistorius did not “subjectively foresee” that he would kill Reeva Steenkamp, 29, because he believed she was in the bedroom of his house at the time of the shooting.
The appeals court judges “have to decide whether he should have foreseen that someone could have died when he fired the shots,” said Adrie Hechter, a criminal lawyer based in Bloemfontein.
A high court in Pretoria sentenced Pistorius to five years in prison for culpable homicide last year after finding that he did not deliberately kill Steenkamp, 29.
Pistorius testified he mistook Steenkamp for a burglar and said he fired four shots through the toilet door with a pistol loaded with hollow point bullets. Pistorius, both of whose legs are amputated below the knees, said he feared his life was in imminent danger.
He was released on house arrest this month on the condition that he continues psychotherapy and adheres to a ban on carrying firearms. He currently lives at his uncle’s mansion on the edge of the Pretoria.
The state, led by Nel, said Judge Thokozile Masipa erred in her original verdict.
It argued that Pistorius must have known that by firing into a confined space, he would kill whomever was behind the door. It wants the Supreme Court of Appeals to impose the harsher finding of murder.
If the court, after assessing the trial documents, does change the verdict, it may impose a harsher sentence on Pistorius. He faces a minimum of 15 years in prison.
“If the verdict is changed to murder, the appeals court itself can change sentence, or they can refer it back to the High Court,” Hechter said.
“My gut feeling is that in this case, they will decide on the sentence themselves,” he said.
Pistorius, known widely as the Blade Runner for his use of running blades, became the first Paralympian in 2012 to compete in the Olympic Games.