Before Oscar Pistorius was strip-searched and issued with an orange jumpsuit to start serving a five-year prison sentence for killing girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, he appeared to grasp his uncle’s hand.
However, what at first glance appeared to be a momentary embrace between the two men was actually an exchange of Pistorius’ expensive designer watch.
Just as the judge ordered him to stand, Pistorius slipped the watch from his wrist and held it behind his back.
Pistorius, who had cried and retched during his trial, was unemotional as he stood to hear his sentence.
Moments later as he walked towards the stairs leading to the cells, he took hold of his uncle’s hand and gave him the watch.
It was previously disclosed a number of his designer watches went missing when police first raided his home on the night he shot dead Steenkamp — including a £6,000 (€7,605) watch from a display case in his bedroom.
Timing was the predominant subject of the day — as Pistorius stands to serve only 10 month in prison and see out the rest of his sentence under house arrest, leading to criticism from rights groups, but acceptance from the victim’s family.
Pistorius was taken away in a armoured police van with barred windows. A raucous crowd gathered around the vehicle, whistling, shouting and banging on van.
Delivering her sentence, Judge Thokozile Masipa cited the “gross negligence” that the double-amputee Olympic runner showed when he shot Steenkamp multiple times through a toilet cubicle door in his home.
Pistorius could be released after 10 months to serve the remainder under house arrest, according to legal experts.
Steenkamp’s parents were also in court to hear the sentence and the dead model’s mother, June, said justice had been done. A close friend of Steenkamp, Gina Myers, said: “I really don’t think any of us will heal anytime soon... There will always be questions.”
Pistorius’ uncle, Arnold Pistorius, said: “Oscar will embrace this opportunity to pay back to society.” He appealed to reporters to give the family privacy after what he called “20 months of relentless public trial”.
Pistorius’ uncle also criticised state prosecutors for pursuing a premeditated charge against Pistorius, and said “they decided to inflict as much collateral damage as they could”.
Masipa said her sentence was a balancing act between retribution and clemency.
“I am of the view that a non-custodial sentence would send a wrong message to the community,” Masipa said after summarising parts of the case and explaining why she reached her decision. “On the other hand, a long sentence would not be appropriate either as it would lack the element of mercy.”
Masipa last month convicted Pistorius of culpable homicide (the South African equivalent of manslaughter in Irish law), but acquitted him of murder after he testified he mistook Steenkamp for an intruder.
She asked Pistorius to stand as she delivered the sentence. Pistorius was then led away by police, stopping briefly to grip the hands of his uncle and other family.
Pistorius’ defence and the prosecution have 14 days to lodge any appeal against the judge’s decision.
Prosecutors said they are considering whether to appeal the sentence, where Pistorius, 27, could serve less than a year in jail for killing his 29-year-old girlfriend.
Nathi Mncube, the prosecution spokesman, said his office was disappointed in the culpable homicide conviction and had not yet decided whether to appeal the sentence.
“We have not made up our minds whether we’re going to appeal it or not,” he said. He added that there was an “appetite” to appeal but that prosecutors would review their options.
“We are satisfied with the fact that he will be serving some time in prison,” said Mncube.
Masipa had a wide range of options available to her because South Africa does not have a minimum sentence for culpable homicide, which is comparable to manslaughter. Pistorius faced up to 15 years in jail, but could also have received a completely suspended sentence or house arrest.
Marius du Toit, a legal analyst and criminal defence lawyer, said Pistorius would have to serve one sixth of his sentence in prison — 10 months — before he could be eligible to be moved to house arrest.
“It’s an appropriate sentence,” du Toit said. He said a higher sentence would have been impossible because “you cannot elevate the sentence to murder”.
Another analyst, law professor Kelly Phelps, said Masipa had done “a remarkable job at balancing all of the competing interests that were weighing down on her”.
The ruling African National Congress’ Women’s League, which is at the forefront of political efforts to tackle violence against South African women, called for an appeal by the state against the culpable homicide conviction.
Before the decision, protesters picketed against Pistorius outside the court, a sign of the anger that might have ensued and the damage that might have been done to the much-criticised judicial system if the sentence was seen as too light.
On a separate firearms charge for which Pistorius was also found guilty, Masipa gave him a three-year suspended sentence.
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