PRETORIA, South Africa — After months of hearings, the judge in the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius said on Thursday that there were “not enough facts” for him to be found guilty of premeditated murder, the most serious charge facing the double amputee track star.
The judge, Thokozile Matilda Masipa, also found that Mr. Pistorius could not be found guilty of a lesser form of murder in the killing of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, 29, when he shot and killed her in the early hours of Feb. 14, 2013. Sitting in a woooden dock, Mr. Pistorius sobbed as the judge spoke.
In a lengthy recitation of the facts, Judge Masipa said that Mr. Pistorius had acted “unlawfully,” but did not immediately disclose her ruling on the lesser charge of culpable homicide which would bring a lower sentence than murder charges she dismissed.
The judge said that Mr. Pistorius had been a “very poor witness” who had delivered evasive and inconsistent testimony under harsh cross examination
Mr. Pistorius, 27, is accused of murdering Ms. Steenkamp at his villa in a gated complex in Pretoria, the South African capital. He has said he awoke from his bed and heard what sounded like a window opening in the bathroom, convincing him that an intruder had entered his home.
Then, walking on the stumps of his legs in a darkened passageway, with a handgun thrust out before him, he opened fire on a locked toilet door. Only later, he testified, did he suspect that Ms. Steenkamp was inside and did he break down the door with a cricket bat to discover her bloodstained body.
“Before I knew it, I had fired four shots at the door,” Judge Masipa quoted Mr. Pistorius as saying, as she recited the various ways he described the shooting during the trial. At times, he said he shot “in the belief that the intruders were coming out” to attack him. At other moments, he said “he never intended to shoot anyone” and had not fired purposefully at the door, the judge said. Part of Mr. Pistorius’s evidence, she said, was “inconsistent with someone who shot without thinking.”
Ms. Steenkamp, Judge Masipa added, “was killed under very peculiar circumstances.” While questions remained, “what is not conjecture is that the accused armed himself with a loaded firearm.” But the evidence that he committed premeditated murder was “purely circumstantial.”
“The state clearly has not proved beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of premeditated murder,” she said. “There are not enough facts.”
But, she continued, “there is no doubt that when the accused fired shots through the toilet door he acted unlawfully.”
After 41 days of testimony, spread over months since the trial opened in March, it was not clear when the judge would finally pronounce a verdict. Some South African legal specialists said the hearing could run into Friday. While she accepted that Mr. Pistorius “would feel vulnerable” because of his disability,” the judge said, he had been “a very poor witness” and had been evasive and “lost his composure” under cross-examination.
Until the killing, Mr. Pistorius, who had challenged able-bodied runners only months earlier at the London Olympics in 2012, seemed to be reveling in a glittery career of sporting success and celebrity acclaim.
Dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and black tie, Mr. Pistorius sat in the wooden dock as the judge read to a courtroom packed with lawyers, journalists and relatives of both Ms. Steenkamp and Mr. Pistorius. At times, the athlete, who has wept, wailed and retched during earlier hearings, seemed to be struggling to contain his emotions. Apart from the murder charge, Mr. Pistorius also faces three counts relating to firearms offenses.
The athlete, Judge Masipa said, had denied the state’s accusation that he killed Ms. Steenkamp after an argument, and had denied that he acted with premeditation. She said it was “common cause” that, after the shooting, Mr. Pistorius broke down the locked toilet cubicle door, cried out for help and was in an emotional state.
Judge Masipa said the issues were limited to whether Mr. Pistorius “had the requisite intention” to commit murder and “whether there was any premeditation.”
“There were no eyewitnesses,” Judge Masipa said, and the only people at the scene when the shooting happened were Mr. Pistorius and Ms. Steenkamp.
The fascination with the trial, which was initially set to last three weeks, has been compared in South Africa and elsewhere to the attention paid to theO.J. Simpson case in the United States.
Mr. Pistorius has not disputed that he fired four rounds through the toilet cubicle door, killing Ms. Steenkamp, a law graduate, model and budding television personality. But while the prosecution has said he committed premeditated murder, the athlete, nicknamed the Blade Runner for the scythe-like prosthetic limbs he uses to compete, insists he killed her by mistake, believing an intruder had entered his home.
As the trial unfolded, the defense and the prosecution offered Jekyll-and-Hyde depictions of Mr. Pistorius’s character.
The prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, described him as trigger-happy, mendacious, narcissistic and prone to rage. By contrast, the lead defense lawyer, Barry Roux, sought to present him as anxious, vulnerable and fearful of South Africa’s violent crime, laboring under the psychological burden of growing up since the age of 11 months with both legs amputated below the knee.
In part, the trial has been held up as evidence of a dramatic reversal of South Africa’s white-dominated apartheid-era legal system. In 1998, four years after South Africa’s first democratic election, Judge Masipa, who is 66 today, became only the second black female judge to be appointed to the High Court. Born in a poor township, she had been a social worker and newspaper journalist before studying law at the height of the apartheid era. Now, under South African judicial protocols, lawyers and witnesses are obliged to address her with the honorific “My Lady.”
But the trial has also highlighted the country’s continued racial preoccupations and its high levels of crime against women. In other cases, Ms. Masipa has handed down tough sentences in cases of rape and violence against women.
Ms. Masipa said on Thursday that it would be “fruitless” to rehash every single item of evidence in the trial, but she had considered them all and would summarize them. She said witnesses had been confused about the sounds they heard coming from Mr. Pistorius’s upscale villa, including screams, gunshots and the strikes of the cricket bat the athlete used to break down the toilet door after the shooting.
“The witnesses failed to describe the events in the same way,” she said.
Judge Masipa said the second-by-second timeline of events would help her determine whether Mr. Pistorius had “direct intention” to kill Ms. Steenkamp. She also alluded to the question of whether the prosecution had proved its case “beyond reasonable doubt.” After almost two hours of reading her judgment in a calm and dispassionate voice, the judge had given no indication of the likely verdict.
Judge Masipa dismissed two elements in the prosecution case relating to the state of Mr. Pistorius’s relationship with Ms. Steenkamp as revealed in text messages and to suggestions that she had eaten far later in the evening than the runner had maintained. “None of this evidence proves anything,” she said of the text messages which, the prosecution said, revealed that the runner’s relationship with Ms. Steenkamp was broken.
“Normal relationships are dynamic,” Ms. Masipa said. “Human beings are fickle.”