A South African judge cleared Oscar Pistorius of all murder charges on Thursday, saying prosecutors had failed to prove the Olympic and Paralympic track star intended to kill his girlfriend or an imagined intruder on Valentine’s Day last year.
A verdict on the less serious charge of culpable homicide is still to come.
Although judge Thokozile Masipa described the 27-year-old as a “very poor” and “evasive” witness, she said this did not mean the track star was necessarily guilty in a case she said was based entirely on circumstantial evidence.
“The state has not proved beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of premeditated murder,” Masipa told the Pretoria High Court.
“There are just not enough facts to support such a finding.”
She then proceeded to absolve Pistorius, who said he shot model and law graduate Reeva Steenkamp in the mistaken belief she was an intruder hiding in a toilet cubicle, of the lesser murder charge of dolus eventualis.
“Clearly he did not subjectively foresee this as a possibility that he would kill the person behind the door – let alone the deceased – as he thought she was in the bedroom,” she told the packed courtroom.
As she delivered her decision, Pistorius, who would have faced at least 25 years behind bars for premeditated murder, sat sobbing in the dock, tears streaming down his cheeks.
Although he has been cleared of the two murder charges, he could still be convicted of culpable homicide for the negligent or reckless killing of Steenkamp, who was hit by four 9mm rounds Pistorius fired through the toilet door at his luxury Pretoria home.
Culpable homicide still carries up to 15 years in jail.
Alternatively the double-amputee could be acquitted, allowing him to leave the court and potentially resume his career as one of the biggest names in world athletics.
As the 66-year-old Masipa began her methodical review of the 41-day trial and the charges – which also include three unrelated firearms offences – a pained and forlorn Pistorius bowed his head in the dock.
Masipa, only the second black woman to rise to the bench in South Africa, has remained impassive throughout the often dramatic and gruesome court proceedings, seemingly impervious to the global interest in a case that has drawn comparisons to the 1995 murder trial of American football star OJ Simpson.
In one early blow to Pistorius, Masipa said defence allegations of police contamination of the crime scene “paled into insignificance”.
However, as she drew up a detailed timeline of the shooting of model Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day last year, she questioned the reliability of state witnesses, including that of a neighbour who testified to hearing screams of a woman.
She also rejected a mass of instant messaging evidence presented by both prosecution and defence to suggest, respectively, that the couple’s relationship was on the rocks or loving and strong.
“Normal relationships are dynamic and unpredictable most of the time, while human beings are fickle,” she said. “None of the evidence of a loving relationship, or a relationship turned sour, can assist this court.”
The prosecution painted a picture of Pistorius as a gun-obsessed hot-head who handled a loaded pistol in a packed restaurant and whooped with joy when he blew apart a water-melon with a high-calibre pistol, likening the red mush to brains.
With many glued to the live court broadcast, post-apartheid South Africa was forced to ask itself some uncomfortable questions, not least about male attitudes to violence and the reality of whites and blacks still inhabiting largely different worlds.
Why, commentators asked, of more than 30 witnesses called were only two – a security guard and police ballistics expert – black?
Why, Masipa aside, were nearly all the leading protagonists white in a nation where whites are just 10 percent of the population?
Was South Africa really so dangerous that Pistorius and his friends were justified in feeling the need to carry handguns?
And, as backdrop to it all, the universal white suburban fear: how to protect yourself from an intruder – assumed to be black – in the middle of the night, a fear hardwired by years of apartheid propaganda about the ‘swart gevaar’ (black danger).