Pistorius faces justice as judge starts verdict

by Reuters 0

This is as a South African judge started her verdict in his murder trial, a decision that could put him behind bars for 25 years.

In a fitting reminder of how South Africa has changed in the 20 years since apartheid, the fate of Pistorius, a wealthy white man from privileged roots, rests in the hands of a 66-year-old black woman from Soweto, Judge Thokozile Masipa.

The track star arrived at the courthouse in the heart of the capital at 0700 GMT in a dark suit and white shirt. He was surrounded by a ring of bodyguards and police who escorted him through a scrum of reporters and television cameras.

He made no comment.

As Masipa began her methodical review of the 41-day trial and the charges – murder and three lesser, unrelated firearms offences – a pained and forlorn Pistorius bowed his head in the dock, tears welling up in his eyes.

Masipa, only the second black woman to rise to the bench in South Africa, has remained impassive throughout the often dramatic and gruesome court proceedings, seemingly impervious to the global interest in a case that has drawn comparisons to the 1995 murder trial of American football star OJ Simpson.

A handful of Pistorius supporters gathered outside the court in solidarity with the Paralympic and Olympic track star, once revered as the embodiment of triumph over physical adversity.

Even though it is now 18 months since he shot and killed his girlfriend through a locked toilet door on Valentine’s Day 2013, his downfall remains a divisive issue among South Africans, with many accepting his version that he believed he was firing at an intruder.

“I light a candle for him and the judge every night,” said Ria du Plessis, a 73-year dried meat shop owner from the outskirts of Johannesburg who carried a banner reading: “Oscar you were, you are, you will always be an inspiration, a hero.”

Others took the opposite view.

“Judgement day arrives. You reap what you sow,” one poster on the back of a motorbike read.


Masipa has to review more than 4,000 pages of documents from the 41-day on-off trial, meaning her final verdict will probably be delayed until Friday.

The outcomes for Pistorius are stark.

If she sides with the state, which argues that he murdered his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in a fit of rage on Valentine’s Day last year, 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.

In one early blow to Pistorius, Masipa said that defence allegations of police contamination of the crime scene “paled into insignificance”.

However, she also questioned the reliability of testimony from neighbours who said they heard shots interspersed with screams.

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.


The case has gripped millions around the world who admired Pistorius, 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”.

In sports-mad South Africa, the shooting caused an even bigger impact, the stunning downfall of a sporting hero feted by black and white alike in a society still divided by its racist past.

But as the trial unfolded that sentiment changed.

The prosecution painted a picture of Pistorius as a gun-obsessed hot-head who handled a loaded pistol in a packed restaurant and whooped with joy when he blew apart a water-melon with a high-calibre pistol, likening the red mush to brains.

With many glued to the live court broadcast, post-apartheid South Africa was forced to ask itself some uncomfortable questions, not least about male attitudes to violence and the reality of whites and blacks still inhabiting largely different worlds.

Why, commentators asked, of more than 30 witnesses called were only two – a security guard and police ballistics expert – black?

Why, Masipa aside, were nearly all the leading protagonists white in a nation where whites are just 10 percent of the population?

Was South Africa really so dangerous that Pistorius and his friends were justified in feeling the need to carry handguns?

And, as backdrop to it all, the universal white suburban fear: how to protect yourself from an intruder – assumed to be black – in the middle of the night, a fear hardwired by years of apartheid propaganda about the ‘swart gevaar’ (black danger).