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.
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.
All along, the prosecution pressed for a conviction for cold-blooded 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.”
Masipa called Pistorius a “very poor witness,” saying he was “evasive” in the face of prosecution questioning. Still, in her opinion that did not warrant a guilty verdict on the charge of premeditated murder, or even 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.
• 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, and that it is clear to her that he genuinely believed Steenkamp to be in bed, not in the toilet.
“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.
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. In her summation, Masipa said murder with dolus eventualis is when someone foresees they could cause death, but recklessly proceeds anyway. 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.