Evasive, negligent, unreasonable, hasty and at times a dishonest witness. Oscar Pistorius is all those things, but he is not a murderer, Judge Thokozile Masipa ruled Thursday.
Pistorius crumpled, sobbing, his shoulders shaking uncontrollably after Masipa delivered her verdict clearing him of murder charges in the shooting death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine’s Day 2013.
His sister, Aimee, rushed to comfort him, and family members and supporters huddled around, hugging during a break in court proceedings.
Steenkamp’s parents showed no emotion, but some of her close friends were tearful.
The ruling stunned many South Africans, including legal analysts, igniting speculation that Masipa had made a mistake that could provide a basis for an appeal. But despite widespread sentiment on social media and elsewhere that Pistorius had gotten away with murder, the case was not over.
“It is clear that his conduct was negligent,” Masipa said before she halted proceedings until Friday.
The judge is expected to deliver a ruling on a lesser charge of culpable homicide, known as negligent killing, when proceedings resume. In addition, prosecutors, who contended that Pistorius wanted to kill Steenkamp after they had an argument, may appeal the murder acquittal.
Pistorius, who had faced life behind bars if convicted of premeditated murder, could see significant prison time or none at all if convicted of negligent killing, depending on how reckless he was in the judge’s view.
Masipa said Thursday that Pistorius, a double amputee who competed in the 2012 Olympics in London running on prosthetic legs, used excessive, unreasonable force when he fired four shots into a toilet door in his bathroom, killing Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model.
“I am not convinced that a reasonable person with the accused’s disability would have fired four shots into that small toilet cubicle,” Masipa said. “I am of the view that the accused acted too hastily and used excessive force.”
She accepted his defense that he acted in fear, believing there was an intruder in the cubicle.
There were gasps in the court as Masipa adjourned for the day.
Pistorius, 27, left court looking calmer than he had for much of the trial, and was driven to his uncle Arnold’s mansion in Waterkloof, an upscale Pretoria suburb. In an indication of the optimistic mood, the family sent out a domestic worker, in a blue uniform with a white kerchief on her head, to serve drinks from a tray to journalists.
Pistorius won fame and adulation for running in the Olympic Games, attracting sponsorships worth millions. The sponsors abruptly dropped him after the murder charges, and he appeared to lose public support after his poor performance on the witness stand.
His acquittal on the murder charges raises the question of whether the athlete may be able to resume a sporting career. But the emotional frailty he showed throughout the trial, weeping frequently and vomiting on hearing descriptions of Steenkamp’s wounds, may have irreparably damaged the Pistorius brand that sponsors once clamored for.
The trial revealed a side of the athlete as an anxious, insecure person, paranoid about his safety, with a short fuse. The court heard that Pistorius loved guns, had an intimate knowledge of different kinds of high-powered guns and ammunition, and never went anywhere without a loaded weapon. The prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, accused him of reckless behavior regarding firearms.
The Pistorius family has been through deep trauma over many months, including the threat of a murder conviction for Oscar Pistorius and the near-death in a car accident last month of his older brother, Carl. Carl Pistorius was in court in a wheelchair Thursday, hugging his brother and winking at him before the court resumed after a long lunch break. Carl Pistorius faced culpable homicide charges last year over a separate car accident but was acquitted.
Much of the most dramatic evidence in the trial — such as Steenkamp’s cellphone message to Pistorius saying that he sometimes scared her, or revelations that a policeman stole a watch from the athlete’s bedroom hours after the killing — was ruled irrelevant.
The judge also rejected neighbor Michelle Burger’s testimony that she heard a woman’s blood-curdling screams the night of the shooting, calling Burger an unreliable witness. As she dismissed testimony of another neighbor who claimed to have heard an argument that night, the state’s case of premeditated murder of Steenkamp swiftly toppled.
“The state has not proved beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of premeditated murder. There are just not enough facts to support this finding,” Masipa said.
Many South African were surprised that the judge, though she found that Pistorius was dishonest when he repeatedly insisted that he never intended to fire the fatal shots, still acquitted him of murder. But Masipa cited a legal precedent cautioning a judge against a guilty conviction just because an accused person lied under oath.
“He was not truthful when asked about his intentions that morning as he armed himself with a lethal weapon,” Masipa said, but “untruthful evidence does not always justify the conclusion that the accused was guilty.”
According to Pistorius, Steenkamp got up in the middle of the night without his noticing. He heard a noise in the bathroom and became convinced there was an intruder inside. Thinking she was still in bed, he grabbed a gun, screamed at her to call the police, approached the bathroom and fired the four shots that killed her. Steenkamp was struck in the head, arm, hip and hand.
During cross-examination, Pistorius floundered as the prosecutor questioned him aggressively about the details of what happened that night.
“The accused was a very poor witness,” Masipa said. “During his evidence in chief he seemed composed and logical with the result that his evidence flowed and made sense.” But under cross-examination, “he lost composure” and seemed mainly concerned with the implications of his statements for his legal fate.
She said he fired unlawfully because there was no threat to his life. Instead he could have called 24-hour security service or police, or run to the balcony and called for help.
Masipa’s acquittal of Pistorius on the premeditated murder charge was widely expected, but her decision to acquit on a lesser murder charge ignited a debate among legal analysts on whether she made an error on which the prosecution could base an appeal.
On the less serious murder count, the judge ruled that Pistorius couldn’t have foreseen he would kill Steenkamp because he thought she was in bed. But legal analysts said that if he foresaw that shooting would kill anyone in the cubicle — regardless of whether he thought it was Steenkamp or an intruder — he ought to be convicted of murder.
James Grant, professor of law at Witwatersrand University, tweeted that arguably she had made an error in law.
Defense advocate David Dadic said on Twitter, “With all due respect to the judge, but it seems the pages in that big bundle have been mixed up,” a reference to the thick wad of pages in her judgment.
Pierre de Vos, chairman of constitutional law at the University of Cape Town, also expressed doubt about her finding. “Surely if you shoot into a door of small toilet and know somebody behind door you foresee and accept possibility of killing?” he tweeted.
Some South Africans drew a comparison between Pistorius’ acquittal for murder and a recent case in which hip-hop star Molemo “Jub Jub” Maarohanye and another man were convicted of murder for killing four schoolchildren when one of the men lost control while racing their Mini Cooper cars through the streets of Soweto under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
“I’m very confused. Jub Jub raced a car high and was found guilty of murder, Oscar went to fetch a gun but he gets less time?” tweeted South African comedian Trevor Noah. “If you’re going to kill someone in South Africa, use a gun, not a Mini Cooper.”
Pistorius also faces charges of firing a gun in a restaurant and out a car sunroof, and of illegal possession of ammunition, all of which could carry jail time. The court has yet to deliver its verdict on the lesser charges. If convicted of these or culpable homicide, he will be sentenced after the prosecution and defense make submissions to the court on sentencing.
Many who saw Steenkamp’s killing as domestic violence expressed dismay Thursday.
“Every woman who is killed matters, whether she’s the girlfriend of a world-famous Olympian or a woman whose name hardly anyone knows in a rural village,” said Dean Peacock, director of Sonke Gender Justice, a nonprofit organization. “We can’t forget, when Oscar’s trial is over, that this is happening again and again and again, every day.”
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