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Oscar Pistorius awaits sentencing for killing of Reeva Steenkamp

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Oscar Pistorius

PRETORIA, South Africa — Oscar Pistorius — the onetime South African sporting hero found guilty of negligent killing in the death of his girlfriend — returned to court Monday for a hearing that will determine whether he’s going to prison.

Judge Thokozile Masipa, who presided over his high-profile trial and delivered the verdict last month, will decide his sentence.

Pistorius was found guilty of culpable homicide, the South African term for unintentionally, but unlawfully, killing a person.

However, Masipa cleared him of murder in the killing of model and law graduate Reeva Steenkamp. He was granted bail pending the sentencing hearing.

The hearing is likely to take several days, as both prosecution and defense will have the chance to put their arguments and evidence before the court.

There is no legal minimum or maximum sentence for culpable homicide in South African law, so it will be up to the judge to decide.

A typical sentence is five to eight years. But it is a principle of South African law that the sentence should be tailored to the culprit as a whole person, as opposed to the crime. That makes predicting a sentence difficult, said Kelly Phelps, a CNN legal analyst.

The judge also found Pistorius guilty of one weapons-related charge involving a shooting at a restaurant.

The maximum penalty for that is five years behind bars. But he could get a lesser sentence, such as a fine or the loss of his gun license.

It’s likely that a pre-sentence report will be presented to the court, which may recommend a sentence — although the judge is not bound by it. Also, both the prosecution and defense probably will tell the court what they consider an appropriate sentence to be.

Prison life?

If Pistorius is sent to prison, it’s not clear whether his disability will allow him any special treatment. And daily life behind bars likely would not be easy.

Born with a congenital abnormality, he had both his legs amputated below the knee before his first birthday and uses prosthetic limbs to get around. The carbon-fiber blades he used to compete on the track — before Steenkamp’s killing abruptly halted his running career — earned him the nickname “Bladerunner.”

During his trial, his defense highlighted his vulnerability when on his stumps, while a court-ordered psychiatric assessment found that he was depressed, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and a suicide risk.

South Africa’s prisons, meanwhile, are notorious for their overcrowding, which puts a strain on sanitation, ventilation and medical care for inmates.

Pistorius would likely receive far better treatment than the average prisoner, as he has throughout the judicial process, said Nooshin Erfani-Ghadimi, project coordinator for the Johannesburg-based Wits Justice Project, a civil society group.

Even so, she said, it will not make much difference.

“I don’t think anyone with a disability necessarily will be able to be provided for at the moment in a way that ensures that they would have the correct medical treatment, that they have the correct physical structures,” she said.

‘Conduct was negligent’

Pistorius, 27, has always admitted firing the bullets that killed his girlfriend Steenkamp, 29, a cover model about to turn reality-TV star. He pleaded not guilty to murdering her in his home on Valentine’s Day last year, saying he believed there was a burglar and the killing was a tragic mistake.

But in grabbing his gun and heading toward the supposed threat, Pistorius “acted too hastily and used excessive force,” Masipa ruled last month.

“His conduct was negligent” and not what a reasonable man would do in the circumstances — not even a disabled one, she said.

Defense arguments about his upbringing in a crime-riddled environment might explain his conduct that night, but it does not excuse it, the judge said.

“The accused had reasonable time to reflect, to think and to conduct himself reasonably,” she said.

Appeals process

Pistorius can appeal the verdict or the sentence, potentially to the Supreme Court of Appeal and even eventually to the South African Constitutional Court.

The state can appeal only if it believes the judge misinterpreted the law in reaching her verdict.

The right to appeal depends on whether, based on the facts of the case, the initial judge or magistrate believes a different court could possibly reach a different verdict.

The Constitutional Court was once just for cases regarding constitutional matters, but a recent act of South Africa’s Parliament broadened the court’s responsibilities.