A liar and a poor witness - but not a murderer
Though athlete contradicted himself, judge says that prosecution failed to prove case
Oscar Pistorius was a "poor and contradictory" witness, but the state's case against him was based solely on circumstantial evidence and many of its witnesses were simply "wrong" in what they thought they heard the night Reeva Steenkamp died, the judge in the case ruled yesterday.
Judge Thokozile Masipa, who tried the case without a jury, said prosecutors had failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Pistorius intended to kill his girlfriend at his Pretoria home on Valentine's Day last year.
Accompanied by frequent gasps in the packed courtroom, the judge took apart the state's case that the Paralympic athlete shot Miss Steenkamp after the couple had a passionate row.
The judge said argumentative phone messages between the pair "proved nothing"; she dismissed as "inconclusive" evidence that Miss Steenkamp had eaten when Pistorius claimed they were asleep in bed; and she described witnesses' claims of hearing "blood curdling" screams before the shots were fired as "unreliable".
Judge Masipa indicated that she would find the athlete guilty of the lesser charge of culpable homicide when she returns to court today, but, crucially, she accepted his claim that he thought he was tackling an intruder and that his life was in danger.
"How could the accused reasonably have foreseen that the shot he fired would kill the deceased?" she said.
"Clearly he did not subjectively foresee this as a possibility, that he would kill the person behind the door, let alone the deceased as he thought she was in the bedroom at the time."
As anticipation built ahead of yesterday's judgment, legal experts in South Africa had lined up to explain why they believed Pistorius would be found guilty of murder. Most pointed to the athlete's rash actions. Others cited the many improbabilities in his account, not least that he had not tried to alert his girlfriend before running into the bathroom with a gun.
There was speculation yesterday that the state could appeal if it believed there had been an legal error.
"Masipa doesn't accept that accused intended to kill anyone. Huh? His defence was he didn't intend to UNLAWFULLY kill," James Grant, a Wits University criminal law professor tweeted. He added: "How can you voluntarily fire four shots into a toilet cubicle & not foresee the possibility of killing whoever was in there."
Judge Masipa conceded that there were holes in the athlete's story and that Miss Steenkamp died in "very peculiar circumstances". Pistorius was a "very poor witness" who lied about his intentions when getting his gun, she said, but being "untruthful" did not necessary mean he "must be guilty".
The burden of proof rested with the state, she pointed out. "The state has not proved beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of premeditated murder," she said. "There are just not enough facts to support such a finding." The judge added that "the timeline of chronology tips the scales in favour of the accused."
Many of the so-called "ear witnesses" living close to the Pistorius home "had their facts wrong", she said. The judge discounted the evidence of Michelle Burger, the state's star witness who said she heard a woman's "blood curdling screams", and that of her husband "in its entirety" because they "failed to separate what they knew personally; what they heard; and what they read in the media".
She dismissed the suggestion that the fact Miss Steenkamp had taken her phone to the lavatory suggested there had been a row with Pistorius, along with the claim by Miss Burger and her husband that Miss Steenkamp continued to scream as the shots were fired, saying they were fired too quickly for this to be possible. She also dismissed a witness's claim to have heard a couple arguing an hour before the shooting, pointing out that a security guard patrolling closer to Pistorius's home heard nothing.
The state relied heavily on phone messages, including one in which Steenkamp told Pistorius she was "scared of you and how you snap at me sometimes".
"Relationships are dynamic and unpredictable," the judge said. "Neither the evidence of the loving relationship or a relationship turned sour can assist this court to determine whether the accused had the requisite intention to kill the deceased."