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Oscar Pistorius found not guilty of murder

Jay Hart
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Nastasya Tay, reporting from Courtroom GD in Pretoria, South Africa, contributed to this report.

Oscar Pistorius has been found not guilty of murdering Reeva Steenkamp.

The stunning development was revealed as Judge Thokozile Masipa read her summation of the evidence Thursday in front of a packed courthouse in Pretoria, South Africa, and a worldwide television audience.

Masipa has yet to hand down her final decision, which will come Friday. She did reveal in the waning moments of Thursday's summation that she determined Pistorious to have been "negligent," which means he could still be found guilty of culpable homicide, a conviction that comes with a maximum of 15 years in prison but carries no mandatory jail sentence.

"He acted too hastily and used excessive force," Masipa said.

Pistorius also faces gun charges that carry potential prison sentences.

Oscar Pistorius reacts during judgment at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria. (REUTERS)
Oscar Pistorius reacts during judgment at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria. (REUTERS)

But a murder charge is out, for the time being anyway. The prosecution can appeal the decision and, if they do, Pistorius could still be convicted of murder, according to legal experts contacted by Yahoo Sports.

All along, the prosecution pressed for a conviction for murder. But the Blade Runner has always maintained it was a tragic accident, that he shot his girlfriend in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine's morning last year in a moment of terror, believing that he was protecting them both from an intruder locked behind a bathroom door.

In her summation, Masipa said the prosecution "failed to show requisite intention to kill the deceased, let alone premeditation." She also ruled out dolus eventualis – the grey area between premeditated murder and culpable homicide.

Under dolus eventualis, if Pistorius should have foreseen that his actions could result in death, yet recklessly proceeded anyway, it still would have been considered murder in South African law. That would have come with a minimum sentence of 15 years.

Masipa ruled out any murder conviction based on several key factors:

• Phone records support Pistorius' timeline of events.

Relying on phone records and "objective evidence," including the timings of the Guard Track facility outside Pistorius’ home, Masipa appeared to accept the defense’s timeline of events, based on the athlete’s account of the evening.

• Witness testimony that Pistorius and Steenkamp were heard arguing prior to the shooting was not supported by the established timeline.

Masipa dismissed much of the testimony delivered by Pistorius' neighbors, saying that many witnesses "got things wrong," potentially because of media coverage of the trial and the fallibility of human memory. She determined that witnesses had been mistaken in their interpretation of sounds – confusing the sound of gunshots with the cricket bat breaking the toilet door, and Pistorius’ screams with those of a woman.

The interpretations of sound are crucial, as the state's case largely hinged on the sequence of events. If, as several neighbors claimed, they heard a woman scream, then clearly Pistorius would have known who was behind the locked bathroom door before firing his gun. However, if it was Pistorius screaming, as he contends, then it follows his version of events.

Based on the state pathologist’s report on Steenkamp's injuries, Masipa determined Reeva would have been “unable to shout or scream, at least in the manner described by the witnesses," especially given the rapidity of the shots. The screams were likely a distressed Pistorius, Masipa found, contradicting the prosecution's contention.

Judge Masipa delivers her judgment in the trial of Oscar Pistorius. (REUTERS)
Judge Masipa delivers her judgment in the trial of Oscar Pistorius. (REUTERS)

• Pistorius relayed his version of events – that he thought an intruder had entered his home – minutes after the shooting took place, and that his version did not waver later in questioning. Masipa agreed with the defense that it would be "highly improbable" for Pistorius to have made up this story so quickly, and that his version remained unwavered throughout questioning even without access to his original statement or evidence from the scene.

• The prosecution's case was built largely on circumstantial evidence.

Case in point, the series of WhatsApp messages the prosecution used to contend the relationship between Pistorius and Steenkamp was a rocky one.

"I'm the girl who let go with u, even when I was scared out of my mind to," Reeva Steenkamp wrote in a text message to Pistorius less than three weeks before he shot and killed her.

"I'm the girl who fell in love with u and wanted to tell u this weekend but I'm also the girl that gets sidestepped when you are in a [expletive] mood. When I feel you think u have me so why try anymore …"

Masipa wasn't buying this as evidence that Pistorius meant to kill Steenkamp.

"Relationships are fickle," she said Thursday. "None of this means anything.”

She was also unmoved by other bits of circumstantial evidence – that Steenkamp brought her phone with her into the toilet meant she was in trouble; that undigested food in her stomach contradicted Pistorius' timeline of events.

Masipa dismissed these arguments from the prosecution as "inconclusive," explaining as such the court cannot use them to make any "inferences."

Further, Masipa determined that Pistorius did not subjectively foresee killing whoever was behind the locked bathroom door, that it is clear to her that he genuinely believed Steenkamp to be in bed, not in the toilet, and that he believed his life to be in danger.

"To find otherwise would be tantamount to saying that the accused's reaction after he realized that he shot the deceased was fake, that he was play acting merely to delude the onlookers at the time," Masipa said.

It is the crucial issue of intent that marked the difference between murder and culpable homicide for Pistorius.

“The accused is the only person who can say what his state of mind was when he fired the shots that killed the deceased," Masipa read from her judgment. "He has not admitted that he had the intention to kill the deceased, or anybody else for that matter.

“The accused clearly wanted to use the firearm, and the only way to use it was to shoot," she continued. "But the intention to shoot does not necessarily include the intention to kill."

Because the evidence didn't suggest to her that Pistorius foresaw he could be shooting Steenkamp, nor that he foresaw his actions could result in death, Masipa excused dolus, surprising many.

But Masipa didn't give Pistorius a free pass, describing his performance on the stand as evasive, saying he was a "very poor witness."

While his examination "could not be faulted," she said, he lost his composure under prosecutor Gerrie Nel's cross-examination. "He gave the impression he was more worried about the impact of his answers than answering the questions asked," Masipa said in her summation.

"The court must avoid attaching too much weight to such untruthfulness," Masipa noted, while pointing out it also did not prove his guilt. "A false statement does not always justify the most extreme conclusion," she said.

Pistorius wasn't candid with the court in his testimony about his intentions, Masipa said. "He had a loaded firearm in his hands, ready to shoot."

He also presented a "plethora" of defenses when it came to the shooting, the judge discerned, including one based on involuntary action brought on by the "startle reflex," which she dismissed, pointing out that a panel of psychologists ascertained that Pistorius had "criminal capacity" and could tell right from wrong when he fired.

But his primary strategy – that of "putative self defense," based on Pistorius' insistence he only fired out of fear for his life – appears to have convinced the judge.

Pistorius could still be convicted of murder if the prosecution chooses to appeal.

The main point of contention is the interpretation of the law around dolus eventualis. It could be argued that it should be interpreted as when someone ought to foresee they could cause death, but recklessly proceeds anyway.

However, if Pistorius is convicted of culpable homicide and the judge hands down a stiff sentence, it's highly unlikely that the state will appeal. If she acquits him entirely, an appeal would be expected.