Pistorius murder trial: Judge says athlete cannot be found guilty of murder, but was negligent

In a lengthy verdict phase climaxing Oscar Pistorius’ trial, the judge said Thursday he can’t be found guilty of murder but that he was negligent in the shooting death of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, raising the possibility he’ll be convicted of culpable homicide.

PRETORIA, South Africa — In a lengthy verdict phase climaxing Oscar Pistorius’ trial, the judge said Thursday he can’t be found guilty of murder but that he was negligent in the shooting death of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, raising the possibility he’ll be convicted of culpable homicide.

Judge Thokozile Masipa said she felt the double-amputee Olympian acted negligently when he fatally shot Steenkamp through a toilet door in his home in the predawn hours of Valentine’s Day last year. In a moment of high-drama, she then stopped reading out her judgment in the six-month-long trial and adjourned until Friday. A formal judgment in the case that has riveted much of South Africa and the world is expected on Friday.

If Pistorius is acquitted of murder, he could still be sent to jail for years if convicted of culpable homicide.

While the judge did not announce a verdict, she said the prosecution had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Pistorius committed premeditated murder. She also ruled out a lesser murder charge, but said Pistorius may be vulnerable to being convicted of culpable homicide — in other words a negligent killing.

“I am of the view that the accused acted too hastily and with excessive force,” Masipa said of Pistorius actions on the fatal night last year.

The world-famous athlete has acknowledged firing four shots through a toilet door in his home, hitting Steenkamp in the head, arm and hip area and killing her. He says he mistook her for an intruder. The prosecution alleges the athlete intentionally killed his girlfriend, a model and budding reality TV star, after a loud argument, which was heard by neighbours.

Culpable homicide normally carries a five-year jail sentence in South Africa when a firearm is used, but it can be changed by a judge depending on the specific circumstances of the killing.

“Culpable homicide is a competent verdict,” the judge said.

Masipa said there were “just not enough facts” to support the finding of premeditated murder in Steenkamp’s fatal shooting.

As the judge spoke, Pistorius wept quietly, his shoulders shaking as he sat on a wooden bench.

Masipa earlier told Pistorius, 27, he could remain seated on the bench while she read her verdict out and until she asked him to stand for the judgment.

Masipa described Pistorius as a “very poor witness” who had lost his composure on the stand and was at times “evasive,” but she emphasized that did not mean he was guilty of murder.

Earlier, the 66-year-old judge cast doubt on witness accounts of hearing a woman’s screams, a key part of the prosecution’s case. Masipa said “none of the witnesses had ever heard the accused cry or scream, let alone when he was anxious,” apparently acknowledging the possibility of the defence’s argument that Pistorius had been the person screaming in a high-pitched voice after discovering he had fatally shot Steenkamp.

Masipa also cited testimony of an acoustics expert called by the defence, saying it cast “serious doubt” on whether witnesses who were hundreds of meters (yards) away in their homes — as some state witnesses were — could have differentiated between the screams of a man or a woman.

At one point, Masipa said: “I continue to explain why most witnesses got their facts wrong.”

Masipa also said she was disregarding text messages between Steenkamp and Pistorius that had been entered as evidence. Prosecutors had submitted text messages that showed tension between them while the defence submitted messages that indicated mutual affection. That evidence, the judge said, doesn’t prove anything.

“Normal relationships are dynamic and unpredictable most of the time, while human beings are fickle,” she said.

Pistorius faced 25 years to life in prison if convicted of premeditated murder for fatally shooting Steenkamp through a toilet cubicle door in his home in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 14, 2013. He also faced years in jail if found guilty of murder without pre-planning, or of negligent killing. Pistorius could also be acquitted if Masipa believes he made a tragic error and acted reasonably.

Earlier, Masipa began by outlining in detail the four charges against the Olympic runner: Murder, two counts of unlawfully firing a gun in a public place in unrelated incidents and one count of illegal possession of ammunition.

Before the session began, Pistorius hugged his brother Carl, who was seated in a wheelchair because of injuries suffered in a recent car crash.

The parents of Steenkamp were also in the packed gallery. Other members of Pistorius’ family, including his father Henke, sat behind him.

If Pistorius is convicted on any charge, the case will likely be postponed until a later sentencing hearing.

There were many journalists at the courthouse, where the sensational trial has unfolded over the last six months.

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