PRETORIA: “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius was convicted Friday of culpable homicide for shooting his lover Reeva Steenkamp, but walked free on bail ahead of what could still be a stiff prison sentence.
South African Judge Thokozile Masipa acquitted Pistorius of murder, but found he acted “negligently” in killing the blonde law graduate and fashion model by firing at her through a bathroom door, claiming he mistook her for an intruder.
The 27-year-old athlete — whose journey from disabled infant to Olympic sprinter inspired the world — will hear his punishment when sentencing begins on October 13.
His trial had heard that in the early hours of Valentine’s Day last year Pistorius fired four hollow point pistol rounds into a locked toilet door, hitting Steenkamp and causing her head to “explode” and “amputating” her arm.
Masipa, dismissing swathes of prosecution evidence as inconclusive or irrelevant, ruled that on the charge of murder “the accused is found not guilty and is discharged. Instead he is found guilty of culpable homicide.”
Pistorius stared straight ahead as the conviction was read, showing little emotion.
But from the courtroom gallery there were sniffles and shallow breaths as friends and family of 29-year-old Steenkamp wept.
Steenkamp’s father Barry looked at Pistorius and ran his hand over his head while her mother June pursed her lips and shook her head.
“We were shocked. Shocked. Disappointed,” at the verdict, June Steenkamp told British ITV News.
“I just don’t feel that this is the right (verdict),” she said in a separate interview with America’s NBC News after the final judgement was handed down in Pretoria.
The mother said her daughter had died a “horrible, painful, terrible death”.
“And I can’t believe that they believe that it was an accident,” she said.
Pistorius was escorted by more than a dozen policemen wearing bullet proof vests out of the courtroom and into a heaving crowd outside.
Culpable homicide carries no mandatory sentence under South African law.
But Masipa — who has a reputation for handing out stiff sentences — could decide to fine Pistorius or put him behind bars for more than a decade.
“It all comes down to how she feels, how bad the mistake was,” said Johannesburg lawyer David Dadic. “It’s a very serious negligence crime.”
Speaking after the verdict, Pistorius’s uncle Arnold said the damage done to the athlete’s career and life as a result of the trial had been “tragic.”
“We always knew the facts,” the family spokesman said, “and we never had any doubt in Oscar’s version of this tragic incident,” thanking Masipa for her verdict.
“On behalf of the family, we would really like to show how deeply grateful we are to Judge Masipa who has found Oscar not guilty of murder.”
But lawyers and crime-weary South Africans voiced surprise and even anger that Pistorius was found not guilty of murder.
The National Prosecuting Authority said it was “disappointed” with the verdict, but had not yet decided on whether to appeal.
“We respect the court’s decision to convict the accused on culpable homicide, which is in fact a serious crime,” said spokesperson Nathi Mncube.
Outside the court Trevor, a 52-year-old pastor from Pretoria, said the verdict showed that justice favours the rich in this country of staggering inequality.
“If he didn’t have money he would be in jail,” he said. “Real men don’t do that.”
John Magoma, a 34-year-old standing outside the North Gauteng High Court said “the judgement is wrong, now the man is off the hook.”
Masipa also found Pistorius guilty on one of three other gun charges that were also levelled against him — that of negligently handling a gun that went off in a busy Johannesburg restaurant.
He was cleared on charges of illegally possessing ammunition and firing a gun through a car sunroof.
Born without fibulas — calf bones — Pistorius had his legs amputated below the knee at 11 months of age and was fitted with prosthetics which allowed him to play sports.