PRETORIA —South African track star Oscar Pistorius has been found guilty of culpable homicide, but cleared of more serious murder charges in connection with the killing of his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, at his home last year.
The Olympic sprinter known as “the blade runner” for his carbon-fiber prosthetic legs, showed little emotion as Judge Thokozile Masipa delivered the long-awaited verdict Friday.
He was the first double-amputee to compete in the Olympics, at the 2012 games in London.
“On count one, murder read with section 51-1 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 105 of 1997, the accused is found not guilty and is discharged,” Masipa said as she read the verdict. “Instead, he is found guilty of culpable homicide.”
Prosecutors argued Pistorius acted intentionally when he shot Steenkamp through a locked bathroom door at his Pretoria home last year. Pistorius said he mistook her for an intruder in the middle of the night and did not mean to kill her.
Masipa agreed. “The state has not proved beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of premeditated murder,” she said. “… The accused is found not guilty and is discharged. Instead, he is found guilty of culpable homicide.”
Culpable homicide, or negligent killing, is punishable in South Africa by up to 15 years in prison.
Pistorius would have faced a prison sentence of 25 years or more had he been found guilty of premeditated murder.
The judge explained her decision during Thursday’s proceedings, when she said Pistorius was negligent and had “acted too hastily and used excessive force.”
She said Pistorius did not act reasonably when he fired the fatal shots, but said he did not act consistently with someone who had just committed murder, noting he quickly called authorities and tried to resuscitate Steenkamp.
The judge ruled Pistorius can remain free on bail until the sentencing, set for October 13.
Pistorius was also convicted of unlawfully firing a gun at a Johannesburg restaurant in early 2013 just weeks before he shot Steenkamp. He was found not guilty of illegal possession of ammunition and firing a pistol out of the sun-roof of a car.
South Africa does not have jury trials. Judge Masipa decided the case with the help of two legal assistants.
The 66-year-old jurist was only the second black woman to be appointed a high court judge in South Africa. She has a reputation for handing down stiff sentences in crimes against women.
The families react
The Pistorius family, which has been in the court for months, reacted impassively. Pistorius’s uncle Arnold said Friday the family was “grateful” the 27-year-old was found not guilty of murder.
Meanwhile, Steeknamp’s supporters and relatives wept quietly or stared ahead in what appeared to be shock. Steenkamp’s parents expressed “disbelief” at the ruling.
In an interview with U.S. television network NBC, Steenkamp’s mother June said the verdict “is not justice for Reeva.”
As the verdict was announced, Twitter was suddenly flooded with angry reactions from South Africans, who said Masipa was too lenient.
Several top legal scholars took to Twitter and local news outlets to dispute Masipa’s interpretation of the case, saying she could have convicted him of a charge just below premeditated murder, called “dolus eventualis,” which is more serious than culpable homicide.
Just outside the court, Trevor Buckland, 50, a pastor of a local church, said he disagreed with the verdict. He said he thought this was a case of domestic abuse taken to a tragic end.
“He knew what he was doing,” Buckland said of Pistorius. “So we feel it was in the courts hands to serve justice, and Reeva has been failed. Because Oscar Pistorius is guilty as can be. … It promotes that, as long as you’ve got money, you can kill your wife or your girlfriend or whatever. ”
But postgraduate student Malagji Foster, 23, said he thought Masipa’s verdict was fair.
“I agree with her 100 percent, sure,” Foster said. “Because, if you can look at the whole case, it was full of circumstantial evidence. Because all people were not there when the incident occurred. Even the experts, the forensic experts, couldn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Oscar Pistorius committed premeditated murder.”
South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority said it was “disappointed” with the verdict and would decide whether to appeal after sentencing.