PRETORIA, September 12- Celebrity athlete Oscar Pistorius was found guilty on Friday of culpable homicide in shooting dead his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, a conviction that could result in a lengthy jail term.
A day after acquitting Pistorius of a more serious charge of murder, South African Judge Thokozile Masipa said that Pistorius had acted “negligently” when firing four hollow point rounds into a locked toilet door in the early hours of Valentine’s Day 2013.
On the charge of murder, Masipa said: “the accused is found not guilty and is discharged, instead he is found guilty of culpable homicide.”
“A reasonable person,” Masipa continued, “would have foreseen that possibility that whoever was behind the door might be killed by the shots and would have taken steps to avoid the consequences and the accused in this matter failed to take those consequences.”
The “Blade Runner” stared straight ahead as the conviction was read, showing little emotion.
From the gallery there was a sound of sniffles and shallow breaths of 29-year-old Steenkamp’s friends crying, including Desi Myers whose lip trembled in anguish.
Steenkamp’s father Barry ran his hand over his head while her mother June pursed her lips and shook her head.
The judge is expected to sentence Pistorius a few weeks from now and with no mandatory sentence for culpable homicide, Masipa will have a great deal of discretion over the punishment.
– Shock and relief –
Legal experts had earlier voiced surprise that Pistorius was found not guilty of murder, and predicted the case would likely not rest with the verdict.
Wits University criminal law professor James Grant said the state could appeal if they believe there has been an legal error.
“Everyone is a little surprised,” said lawyer Audrey Berndt, zeroing in Masipa’s finding that Pistorius could not have known that firing four hollow point bullets through the bathroom door would have killed someone.
“She should have explained her reasoning a little more” said Berndt.
Masipa — whose career has taken her from a childhood in a poor Johannesburg township to the country’s high court — had described Pistorius as a “very poor witness” who was “evasive” when questioned.
Masipa said Pistorius was guilty of negligently handling a gun in restaurant, but acquitted him on two other firearm charges.
Pistorius was found guilty of asking to see a gun in Tasha’s restaurant and while handling it under the table the firearm went off.
“He may not have intentionally pulled the trigger… that does not absolve him of the crime of negligently handling a firearm,” said Masipa.
Pistorius, who had remained emotionless the whole morning, started clenching his jaw during the ruling.
Masipa had however cleared Pistorius on charges of illegally possessing ammunition, which the sprinter said belonged to his father.
She also said there was not enough evidence to suggest he was guilty of another count of shooting a gun through a car sunroof.
The trial, which has gripped South Africans and much of the world for half a year, has cast a harsh spotlight on the fallen hero’s private life.
Full of high drama, the trial has fed intense media interest worldwide, with live broadcasts veering into the realm of TV reality.
During proceedings Pistorius has broken down, weeping and at times vomiting as he heard how his law graduate and model girlfriend’s head “exploded” like a watermelon under the impact of his hollow-point bullets.