Pretoria: Prosecutors fought a rear-guard action to ensure Oscar Pistorius is jailed for unlawfully killing his girlfriend, warning Wednesday that justice was also on trial in the eyes of the South African public.
Amid defence calls for Pistorius to be punished with community service, state prosecutor Gerrie Nel said if the Paralympian star sprinter goes free the court risks ruining the reputation of the country`s legal system.
"If the court sentence is too light, and society loses trust in the court, they will take the law into their own hands," said Nel. "That`s what the court has to guard against."
Nel`s comments came amid a row over courtroom revelations that Pistorius paid "blood money" to the family of his slain girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.
He also hammered defence witness and probation officer Annette Vergeer on her apparent slap-dash report on the state of South Africa`s prisons.
Vergeer had warned that the 27-year-old double amputee Paralympian could be gang-raped if sent to jail over his killing of Steenkamp on Valentine`s Day last year.
Nel criticised her use of nine-year-old data and being unfamiliar with the correction services act that outlines care for disabled people.
"I find that so so irresponsible madam, that you would come to court, venture an opinion on the department of correctional services," said Nel.
Pistorius, who has cried and vomited throughout his trial, stifled yawns as he sat in the dock.
The athlete was found guilty last month of unlawfully killing 29-year-old model and law graduate Steenkamp but acquitted of the more serious charge of murder.
He shot her four times through a bathroom door at his upmarket Pretoria home, saying he mistakenly believed she was an intruder.
Judge Thokozile Masipa could rule on his punishment as early as Friday, with her options ranging from a fine to 15 years in prison.
Claims about Pistorius`s vulnerability and remorse could be central in deciding which way the scales of justice tip.
The defence has suggested that Pistorius clean a museum for 16 hours a week as punishment, drawing a furious reaction from the state.
Nel has described the idea as "shockingly inappropriate".
Vergeer had warned that a jail term would "break" Pistorius and claimed it was not in the interest of justice.
"Without legs he will be vulnerable and a lot more vulnerable than the normal man," said Vergeer, who was paid for her work for the defence.
"I`ve recently done a case for rape within the prison, gang rape. How can we say that he won`t be exposed to that?" she said.
There is little doubt the prison system in South Africa is in a bad state, with violence, overcrowding and criminal behaviour all endemic.
But the department of correctional services has said Pistorius could be entitled to separate accommodation "depending on the vulnerability caused by the disability".Lawyers for Steenkamp`s family expressed shock Wednesday that Pistorius`s defence team revealed details of secret "blood money" payments during a heated courtroom argument.
On Tuesday, Nel said the athlete had also offered the dead model`s family a one-off payment of nearly $35,000, which had been rejected.
Probation officer Vergeer had also referred to monthly payments of $540 Pistorius was making to the Steenkamps as evidence the athlete was remorseful.
In a statement on behalf of the slain model`s parents, lawyers said they had "honoured" a request from the athlete not to reveal the payments.
"We were therefore quite surprised yesterday when this fact was disclosed in court without any prior warning to us," the statement said.
Steenkamp`s parents have said they will repay the roughly $10,000 received from Pistorius "as soon as arrangements can be made in that regard".
"It was always the intention of the parents that the amounts... would be set off against any civil claim that they were going to institute," the statement said.
The parents have decided not to continue with a civil claim.
The sentencing hearing is expected to last through the end of the week. The state has indicated it will call at least two witnesses whose testimony is expected to wrap up on Wednesday or Thursday.
Both the state and defence have 14 days to appeal Masipa`s decision.
The trial, which began on March 3, was broadcast live on television and radio, feeding intense local and international media interest.