Oscar Pistorius convicted of murder: Key questions answered

What happened in court?
Oscar Pistorius has been found guilty of the murder of Reeva Steenkamp, in a supreme court ruling that overturned a culpable homicide conviction. Justice Eric Leach, reading the ruling on behalf of a five-judge bench unanimous in its verdict, said:  “As a result of the errors of law … and on a proper appraisal of the facts, [Pistorius] ought to have been convicted not of culpable homicide on that count but of murder.

“In the interests of justice the conviction and the sentence imposed in respect thereof must be set aside and the conviction substituted with a conviction of the correct offence.”

How did the judges reach their decision? The issue before the court was whether in shooting Steenkamp Pistorius committed the crime of murder, defined as the intentional killing of a human being, or the lesser offence of culpable homicide, defined as the negligent killing of another.

The judges said Pistorius’s evidence and explanations for killing Steenkamp were implausible and that he had never offered an acceptable explanation for firing four times through a closed door.

They said Pistorius’s claim – one of several put forward by the defence – of putative private defence, or self-defence in fear of his life, was not rational. His evidence was so contradictory that it was impossible to know his true reason for firing, but it was clear that the person behind the door did not pose any immediate threat to him.

What was the state’s case?
State prosecutors, speaking at an appeal hearing in November, argued that trial judge, Thokozile Masipa, was wrong when she found Pistorius not guilty of murder.

Chief prosecutor Gerrie Nel told the panel of five judges that Masipa had erred in her application of the legal principle of dolus eventualis, and that she was wrong to conclude that Pistorius had not foreseen that firing four shots into a locked door was likely to kill or injure the person behind it.

Even if Pistorius believed Steenkamp was in bed, there was a criminal intent to bring about the demise of whoever was inside the toilet cubicle, Nel argued.

The state further alleged that the trial judge was wrong to dismiss circumstantial evidence that it said proved the accused’s version of events to be impossible.

What is dolus eventualis?
Dolus eventualis hinges on whether an accused did foresee the outcome of his actions, rather than whether they should have.

In this case, Masipa originally accepted Pistorius’s argument that he did not think his actions would lead to the death of the person behind the door. But she found him guilty of culpable homicide after deciding that a reasonable person should have foreseen such an outcome.

The appeal court judges said Masipa made an error when reaching this verdict. They said the judge was wrong in her application of dolus eventualis, as Pistorius “must have foreseen” that firing into the door could cause the death of whoever was behind it.

Masipa also wrongly conflated the test of dolus eventualis with dolus directus in accepting the defence argument that because Pistorius did not know the person behind the door was Steenkamp meant he could not be guilty of murder.

While Masipa’s verdict was premised upon an acceptance that Pistorius did not think Steenkamp was in the toilet, the judges said the key thing is that the perpetrator knows his actions could kill that person, regardless of who it is.

The failure to take into account all the evidence – in particular key ballistics evidence – amounted to a failure in law, the judges said.

Can the defence appeal?
South African legal experts say it is possible that Pistorius could appeal to the Constitutional Court, but this is a rare step. The key to such an appeal would be for the defence to argue that Pistorius did not receive a fair trial.

The defence will also be able to make a fresh argument in mitigation of sentence when Pistorius returns to the Pretoria high court, probably next year.

The result of that new sentencing could determine whether or not the defence attempts an appeal, according to South African attorney David Dadic.

What happens next for Pistorius?
The South African National Prosecuting Authority has reportedly said that Pistorius will remain under correctional supervision – that is under house arrest at his uncle’s home – until he appears for re-sentencing in front of Masipa.

No date has been set for that hearing. This means Pistorius will not be returning to prison immediately.

A minimum murder sentence in South Africa is 15 years, but judges can apply some discretion. In his ruling, Leach said the court sentencing Pistorius will have to take account the five years imprisonment he was previously handed, as well as the fact that he’s already served one year.

What have relatives of Pistorius and Steenkamp said about the latest verdict?
Steenkamp’s father, Barry, told ANN7: “It’s a big relief. I feel it’s a fair decision that the judge gave,” before breaking down in tears.

The Pistorius family put out this statement: “We have taken note of the judgment that has just been handed down by the Supreme Court of Appeal.

“The legal team will study the finding and we will be guided by them in terms of options going forward.

“We will not be commenting any further at this stage.”

What does the ruling mean for the original judge?
While the appeal court ruled that Masipa had made several errors of law, it also commended her role in the trial. Leach said:

“Before closing, it is necessary to make a final comment. The trial was conducted in the glare of international attention and the focus of television cameras, which must have added to the inherently heavy rigours that are brought to bear upon trial courts in conducting lengthy and complicated trials.

“The trial judge conducted the hearing with a degree of dignity and patience that is a credit to the judiciary.

“The fact that this court has determined that certain mistakes were made should not be seen as an adverse comment upon her competence and ability.

“The fact is that different judges reach different conclusions and, in the light of an appeal structure, those of the appellate court prevail.

“But the fact that the appeal has succeeded is not to be regarded as a slight upon the trial judge who is to be congratulated for the manner in which she conducted the proceedings.” – © Guardian News & Media, 2015

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