Pistorius guilty of culpable homicide

September 12, 2014

PRETORIA, South Africa – While Oscar Pistorius was found not guilty of murder, but convicted of culpable homicide, a lesser charge that comes with no minimum jail sentence, his family said Friday there are “no victors” coming out of Courtroom GD.

“We as a family remain deeply infected by the devastating tragedy event,” Arnold Pistorius, the Paralympian’s uncle, said outside the courtroom. “And it won’t bring Reeva [Steenkamp] back. But our hearts still go out for her family and friends.”

After 41 days of testimony spanning more than five months, the so-called trial of the century in South Africa is over. Judge Thokozile Masipa handed down her decision Friday, a day after revealing to a packed courthouse and worldwide television audience that no, she would not find Pistorius guilty of murder – premeditated or otherwise. Instead, her determination is that the death of 29-year-old Reeva Steenkamp in the early morning hours of Valentine’s Day last year was a tragic accident; that while Pistorius “acted hastily and used excessive force,” he did not show intent to kill his girlfriend.

Asking Pistorius to stand, Masipa read her decision.

Not guilty of murder. “Instead,” Masipa said as Pistorius, reactionless, looked on, “he’s found guilty of culpable homicide.”

As Masipa read the verdict, Steenkamp’s parents remained silent, their faces drawn. Steenkamp’s cousin Kim began sobbing in the public gallery.

Pistorius, 27, also faced three counts of gun charges – two for discharging a gun in public, one for illegal possession of ammunition. Masipa found him guilty of one of those charges – negligently handling a firearm in a restaurant.

Per South African law, the verdict of culpable homicide carries a maximum sentence of 15 years, but does not call for a minimum sentence. The gun charge carries no minimum sentence, meaning Pistorius could receive no jail time whatsoever.

As court adjourned briefly for the judge to finalize sentencing hearing dates, Pistorius sat alone, silent and pensive, his head bowed in the dock. Joined by his sister Aimee, who laid her head on his shoulder, he leaned against her and closed his eyes.

Outside the courtroom, Jackie Mofokeng, a spokeswoman for a provincial branch of the ANC Women’s League, said the Steenkamp family is “not happy.”

“They are not in a good state,” Mofokeng said. “They are not happy their daughter is no more.”

She continued: “It’s a sad day for women of this country and actually for all of us, to actually be coming up with a judgement like this. For us it’s a miscarriage of judgement. … We’ll see what happens to the culpable homicide, how many years is the man going to get. But if judgements like this will be going on now and then, our women in the country and our daughters are not safe.”

Arnold Pistorius relayed his family’s gratitude toward Masipa for finding the Blade Runner not guilty of murder.

“That’s a big burden off us, off our shoulders and Oscar,” he said. “We always knew the facts of the matter and we never had any doubt in Oscar’s version of this tragic incident.”

Court will now be postponed until sentencing, which will begin Oct. 13. Then, Pistorius’ defense will present their arguments for the mitigation of his sentence, with the prosecution likely countering with a push for an aggravation of the potential length of his prison time.

Legal experts say the arguments that follow could potentially constitute a “mini-trial” of sorts, with both sides able to lead evidence, request expert reports, or call witnesses to the stand – even previous witnesses including Pistorius himself – in their efforts to influence Masipa’s decision. The prosecution can put a Steenkamp family member in the box as part of their argument for aggravation of sentence.

In deciding against the premeditated murder charge, Masipa said in her summation Thursday that the prosecution “failed to show requisite intention to kill the deceased, let alone premeditation.”

Also on Thursday she dismissed a charge of dolus eventualis – the grey area between premeditated murder and culpable homicide – on the grounds that Pistorius, in her determination, did not subjectively foresee killing whoever was behind the locked bathroom door on Valentine’s Day morning last year.

In finding Pistorius guilty of culpable homicide, Masipa explained that “the accused acted negligently when he fired shots into the toilet door knowing that here was someone behind the door and that there was very little room to maneuver.

“A reasonable person,” she continued, “therefore in the position of the accused with similar disability, would have foreseen that possibility that whoever was behind the door, might be killed by the shots, and would have taken steps to avoid the consequences, and the accused in this matter failed to take those consequences.”

For now, any murder conviction is out. 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.

There has been much controversy, particularly amongst South Africa’s legal community, about Masipa’s ruling and interpretation of the law around the concept of dolus eventualis, that instead of finding him not guilty because he did not foresee that his actions could result in death, he should have been found guilty because he should have foreseen the consequences of his actions, but recklessly proceeded anyway.

If Masipa hands down a stiff sentence for the culpable homicide verdict, it’s unlikely the state will appeal.

“We believed, of course, and we still do, that there was sufficient evidence on the premeditated murder, and also on the charges upon which the accused was acquitted,” National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson Nathi Mncube said outside the courtroom. “But we accept that this is where we are today and of course we will have to wait until the sentence is imposed to make further comments.”

Asked about a possible appeal, Mncube said, “At this point it would be too early to comment on that. We would have to wait until the case itself is finally concluded, in other words, until there’s a sentence for us to consider our options.”

While the decision still means Pistorius could spend a significant amount of time behind bars, it is not the murder conviction the prosecution pressed for all along. The Blade Runner has maintained from the beginning that this was a tragic accident, that he shot Steenkamp in a moment of terror, believing he was protecting them both from an intruder.

Judge Masipa took more than a month to reach her decision, with the aid of her two assessors: after a 6-month trial, dozens of witnesses, tears, accusations and more than 4,000 pages of evidence.

Over 41 days in court, the world – watching a trial broadcast live on television, on Twitter, on the radio, online – saw a different side to South Africa’s former golden boy.

We watched his stammering apology to a stony-faced June Steenkamp, Reeva’s mother, in the front row of the public gallery. “There hasn’t been a moment since this tragedy happened that I haven’t thought about your family,” he told her in front of the court. “I wake up every morning and you’re the first people I think of, the first people I pray for. I can’t imagine the pain and the sorrow and the emptiness that I’ve caused you and your family.

“I was simply trying to protect Reeva. I can promise that when she went to bed that night she felt loved.”

We listened to his hysterical screams of shock as he shielded his eyes from a close up photograph of his girlfriend’s bloodied head wound, as it flashed up unexpectedly on a screen centimeters from his head.

We watched him weep repeatedly, wiping tears from behind his glasses as he listened to his private WhatsApp conversations with his girlfriend – arguments, kisses and lovers’ names – laid bare to the world.

We watched him double over in the dock, retching into a bucket, as forensic pathologist Gert Saayman described the injuries his 9mm Taurus had inflicted on Reeva Steenkamp, the “Black Talon” bullets “mushrooming, causing maximum damage to soft tissue.”

We were told, without his hefty prescription medications, that he was a suicide risk.

We watched him break down as he read his first and only “I love you” from Steenkamp, written on the Valentine’s Day card he opened in the days after he shot and killed her.

We watched his frustration with “Bull Terrier” prosecutor Gerrie Nel during his extensive cross examination turn into petulance, then anger, then sober-faced reticence.

We watched him resoundingly deny having pulled the trigger on a friend’s gun as it accidentally discharged in a busy Johannesburg bistro, despite a ballistics expert’s testimony that it was the only way it could have gone off.

We watched his indignation as he listened to ex-girlfriends and former friends testify against him – only to accuse them of lying when he took the stand.

We listened as the details of the workings of his mind were read aloud, from experts ordered to assess his mental health, of the “two Oscars”: a confident global icon triumphing over all adversity, spurning pity; and a scared, young man anxious about crime, trying to conceal his vulnerability.

We watched him unstrap his prostheses in public, expressionless, for strangers to examine the damage to his stumps.

We saw photographs of him, his home, covered in Steenkamp’s blood.

We watched Nel attack his character, his ability to take responsibility, his desire to tell the truth.

While Masipa considered Pistorius to be a “very poor witness,” she ultimately determined that he bears no onus to prove his innocence, that it is the state’s job to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and that, in her opinion, the prosecution did not do.

Their case against Pistorius was built mainly on circumstantial evidence that was, in her words, “inconclusive” and not enough for a court to use to make any “inferences.”


  • Society & Culture
  • Crime & Justice
  • Oscar Pistorius
  • culpable homicide
  • Reeva Steenkamp

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