By TJ Strydom and Tanisha Heiberg
PRETORIA (Reuters) - Oscar Pistorius shuffled through a Pretoria court without his prosthetic legs on Wednesday to show how vulnerable he is as the Paralympian seeks to avoid prison for murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.
The 29-year-old faces a minimum 15-year jail term for the Valentine's Day killing in 2013 in a case that has attracted worldwide interest and divided South Africa. He will be sentenced on July 6.
Pistorius has always said he mistook Steenkamp for an intruder when he fired four shots through a locked toilet door in his Pretoria home, killing her almost instantly.
During his closing arguments, defense lawyer Barry Roux asked the gold medalist, known as the "Blade Runner" for his carbon-fibre prosthetics, to walk on his stumps to show the difficulty he faced dealing with the threat of an intruder.
The lower part of his legs were amputated when he was a baby.
His body shaking with emotion, Pistorius removed his prosthetics and stood on his stumps for about five minutes in front of the court television camera, wiping away tears with a tissue.
"The accused was vulnerable because of his disability," Roux said. "His failure to conduct a rational thought process does not negate his vulnerability."
The defense says Pistorius did not deliberately kill model and law graduate Steenkamp and was "a broken man", calling for a non-custodial sentence that includes community service.
A state prosecutor argued that Pistorius - who did not take the stand himself - had shown no remorse or told the court why he fired the shots, and asked the court jail the athlete for the prescribed minimum sentence of 15-years.
The athlete originally received a five-year sentence for a manslaughter conviction, that was upgraded to murder on appeal. The original trial judge, Thokozile Masipa, was presiding at the hearings at the Pretoria High Court.
Roux asked the judge to consider that his client was vulnerable because of his disability and that the prescribed 15-year minimum sentence should give the court "unease".
"The fact is that a disabled person in jail has a more difficult time," Roux said.
The case has prompted a fierce debate in a country beset by high levels of violent crime against women and still dealing with the legacy of decades of apartheid race-based rule.
Some rights groups have said Pistorius, a wealthy white man, has received preferential treatment.
Pistorius reached the pinnacle of his fame in London 2012 when he became the first double amputee to run in the Olympics, reaching the 400 meters semi-finals, before taking two golds in the Paralympics.
Roux said the publicity surrounding the case led to it being portrayed as an incident of gender-based violence, despite the facts showing it was not. Pistorius had now "become the face of gender violence", he said.
Shortly after Roux asked Pistorius to walk without his prosthetics, prosecutor Gerrie Nel requested that the judge allow photos to be shown of Steenkamp's bloodied head and torso.
Masipa ruled that the photos be made available to the public upon request. She said the photos had been banned to protect the Steenkamp family, who had now agreed to lifting the ban.
The victim's father Barry Steenkamp said on Tuesday that Pistorius must pay for his crime.
Prosecutor Nel said Pistorius had failed to show remorse.
"There's a chasm between regret and remorse," Nel said. "Real remorse would have been the accused taking the court into his confidence, telling the court why I fired that shot, why I did what I did. We don't have that."
Johannesburg-based criminal law attorney Zola Majavu said the judge could only deviate from handing out the minimum sentence if Pistorius had demonstrated exceptional circumstances to warrant such a deviation.
He said Pistorius' decision not to speak in court could prove central: "It was a perfect opportunity to show the court that he does take responsibility for his actions."
Pistorius has given an interview to British television, which will be aired next week.
(Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Alison Williams)