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Pistorius’s life in the balance as judge gives verdict

South African Judge Thokozile Masipa began reading her verdict in the six-month murder trial of Paralympic and Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius at the high court in Pretoria on Thursday, in a detailed ruling expected to conclude the following day.

Pistorius, the double-amputee who became one of the biggest names in athletics, shot dead his model and law graduate girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day last year.

The state has called for a verdict of premeditated murder, which could carry a sentence of 25 years in prison. Pistorius says he shot Steenkamp through a locked toilet door in a tragic accident believing she was an intruder.

Options for outcome
If Masipa sides with the state, which argues that he murdered Steenkamp in a fit of rage, he faces a mandatory life term – effectively 25 years behind bars before eligible for parole.

A conviction of murder with less explicit intent could still see him incarcerated for up to 20 years.

Alternatively, Masipa could reject any notion of intent but still rule culpable homicide, equivalent to Britain’s manslaughter, for the reckless or negligent killing of Steenkamp, who was shot through a toilet door at Pistorius’s luxury Pretoria home.

Or she could accept Pistorius’s assertion that he acted in “putative” self-defence, firing four shots from a 9mm pistol through the door in the mistaken but genuine belief that an intruder was lurking behind it.

Murder conviction ‘entirely possible’
Given the explicit curbs in South African law on the use of lethal force without a direct threat to life, legal analysts say the final option is the least likely.

“It’s entirely possible that he could be convicted of murder but not premeditated murder,” said James Grant, a criminal law professor at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, who thinks that at best the court will rule Pistorius was negligent.

“The court is going to ask whether he acted as a reasonable gun-owner, and I think the answer to that is going to be no,” he said.

If convicted, sentencing is likely to be delayed to another hearing in a few weeks, during which time Pistorius can apply for bail. He would also be almost certain to appeal.

Hero to zero
Since it first broke on the morning of February 14 last year, the case has gripped millions around the world who saw Pistorius as the embodiment of triumph over adversity, a man whose lower legs were amputated as a baby but who reached the semi-finals of the 400 metres at the London Olympics in 2012.

That same year, Time magazine included him in its list of the world’s 100 most influential people, “the definition of global inspiration”.

The prosecution painted a picture of Pistorius as a gun-obsessed hot-head – he faces three other weapons-related charges – who  handled a loaded pistol in a packed restaurant and whooped with joy when he blew apart a watermelon with a high-calibre pistol, likening the red mush to brains.

“This case is about the credibility of Oscar Pistorius,” said Johannesburg-based advocate Riaan Louw. “If he’s not a credible witness and the judge does not accept his testimony, he’s going to be convicted on either murder or culpable homicide.” – Reuters

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