In a historic moment, Oscar Pistorius' five-year sentence is handed down by a black female judge

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman with The World. We’re a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH here in Boston. Five years for culpable homicide is the sentence handed down today in South Africa against Oscar Pistorius. He is, of course, the double amputee sprinter who shot and killed his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day 2013. The judge in the case ruled earlier that prosecutors had failed to prove premeditated murder. Our BBC colleague Milton Nkosi was in the courtroom in Pretoria for the sentencing today.

 

Milton Nkosi: The courtroom was packed, including the overflow courtroom. When Thokozile Masipa walked in, you could hear a pin drop. Everyone was just listening attentively. She spoke for about an hour, explaining the principles of law versus public opinion, and she explained that you have to balance the needs of the accused as well as the law of the land. She also explained quite clearly that handing down a sentence is not a publicity contest by the court. The court must give the sentence as it deems fit.

 

Werman: What was the reaction? South Africans generally, how have the reacted to this verdict of 5 years?

 

Nkosi: Well, there’s a mixed reaction. If you look at social media, there are many people who say this sentence is way too lenient. Oscar Pistorius should have been serving a long prison term for killing his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. But there are others who think that the judge was thorough and she demonstrated just how important it is to uphold the law without emotion because, as she ruled, she believed Mr. Pistorius’ own version, that this was a terrible mistake. He thought there was an intruder behind the bathroom door.

 

Werman: Judge Masipa, who presided over the case, she’s black and, as such, grew up under Apartheid and all the prejudice that entails. Tell us a bit more about Judge Thokozile Masipa and what presiding over this trial of Oscar Pistorius and the decisions she’s made, what’s it all meant for black South Africans?

 

Nkosi: That’s a very good question. Judge Thokozile Masipa was a court reporter herself, and she started off in her career as a social worker. Then she decided to leave that job and went into journalism. She left that and decided to go and study law. So she has a very wide range of experiences in her career. But she was arrested under Apartheid when she was a journalist. So she understands what the criminal justice system can deliver, right from the top of the bench into the bottom of the cells. So it was very interesting to see in a democratic South Africa -- remember, it’s 20 years this year since South Africa became free of Apartheid, just to see a black woman sitting there, handing down a sentence to a white man, a day that millions of people never thought they would see.

 

Werman: Oscar Pistorius got 5 years in prison, even though the defense says they expected him to serve about 10 months behind bars. Where is he going to serve out that prison sentence?

 

Nkosi: Well, they’re correct. He is going to spend a minimum of 1/6th of the sentence, which is equal to 10 months, before he can be released to non-custodial supervision. He is in a prison called Kgosi Mampuru II, which is just a few blocks from where I’m talking to you from here in Central Pretoria. This used to be called Pretoria Central Prison. There are many people who were fighting the Apartheid government who were hanged and sentenced there. So the prison has some sort of notorious reputation. But remember, the prosecution brought in the head of prisons to testify last week and he said that Oscar Pistorius would be held, by virtue of being a double amputee, in the hospital section of the prison, which I suppose is a much better place than in the other sections of the prison where there are communal cells.

 

Werman: Is this all over now? Is there any chance for appeal?

 

Nkosi: I spoke to the national prosecution authority officials and they were telling me that they have 14 days to mull over what has happened and they will make their decisions within that period. So it is over, yes, for now. But we will have to wait and see if there is an appeal from the prosecution to try and change all of this to a verdict of murder and probably to a longer prison sentence.

 

Werman: The BBC’s Milton Nkosi speaking with me from Pretoria, South Africa. Thank you Milton.

 

Nkosi: Cheers Marco. Always good to talk to you.