South African athlete Oscar Pistorius would be “broken as a person” if he were jailed for killing his girlfriend because of his disability and psychological problems, a defence witness at his sentencing hearing said yesterday.

The 27-year-old Paralympic and Olympic athlete, whose lower legs were amputated as a baby, was convicted of culpable homicide last month for shooting dead his girlfriend, law graduate and model Reeva Steenkamp, 29, on Valentine’s Day 2013.

Probation officer Annette Vergeer, who was paid by the defence to produce her report, said South African prisons were not conducive to the disabled and Pistorius would be vulnerable to violence and highly stressful situations.

“It will not assist him but break him as a person. The death of the deceased and the period since have been a far bigger punishment than incarceration,” Vergeer told the court. “His disability and state of mind would cause his detention to be an excessive punishment with no benefits to him, society and the deceased’s family,” she said.

Pistorius, dressed in a dark suit and tie, sat impassively in the packed courtroom as one of the most closely watched murder trials in history edged towards its conclusion.

A non-custodial sentence would be likely to cause public anger, fuelling a perception among black South Africans that, 20 years after the end of apartheid, wealthy whites can still secure preferential justice.

Judge Thokozile Masipa cleared Pistorius of murder, saying prosecutors had failed to prove his intent to kill when he fired four 9mm rounds through a toilet door in what he said was the mistaken belief that an intruder was hiding behind it.

The state could decide to appeal the culpable homicide verdict in pursuit of a murder conviction.

An appeal cannot be launched until sentencing has been concluded.

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