PRETORIA — Celebrity athlete Oscar Pistorius faces judgement on a charge of culpable homicide on Friday after being acquitted of murdering his model girlfriend in a shock decision that legal experts described as too lenient.
In a globally-broadcast live television verdict, Judge Thokozile Masipa on Thursday found the double amputee "Blade Runner" not guilty of deliberately killing 29-year-old Reeva Steenkamp.
"The state clearly has not proved beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of premeditated murder," Masipa told the Pretoria High Court, before adjourning for the day.
On Friday she will conclude her verdict.
Legal experts voiced shock that Pistorius was found not guilty of murder, and predicted the case that has gripped South Africans and much of the world for a year would not rest with the verdict.
"I think she's going to get quite a lot of criticism from the judiciary and the legal system," said criminal lawyer Martin Hood.
"The consensus among the legal community was that he is guilty of murder," the Johannesburg-based lawyer added.
"This could really open the door to systematic abuse of our legal system by people who shoot their partners and claim self-defence."
Unless acquitted altogether, Pistorius could still face more than a decade behind bars in South Africa's notoriously brutal jails.
Masipa – who made the journey from a poor Johannesburg township to one of the country's top legal posts – seemed to lean towards finding Pistorius guilty of culpable homicide before the abrupt adjournment.
After describing Pistorius, 27, as a "very poor witness" who was "evasive" when questioned, Masipa criticised his actions in the early hours of Valentine's Day 2013.
"I am of the view that the accused acted too hastily and used excessive force. In the circumstances, it is clear that his conduct was negligent," she said.
"On the facts of this case I am not persuaded that a reasonable person with the accused's disabilities in the same circumstances would have fired four shots into that small toilet cubicle."
She also said that Pistorius "failed to take any steps to avoid the resultant death," crossing off another prerequisite for a manslaughter conviction.
Relief and shock
Following Thursday's verdict, the Paralympian sprinter sat in the dock bowed and burying his head in his hands.
His sister Aimee rushed from the first row of the public gallery to hug her older brother, who was wiping tears from his eyes with a handkerchief.
His aunt Lois cautioned that the trial was not yet over. "It's not the end you know, we're still listening." When asked how proceedings went, defence lawyer Barry Roux smiled, but it was short of his usual toothy grin.
The parents of Reeva Steenkamp, a blonde law graduate voted one of the world's sexiest women by FHM magazine, left the courtroom with stony faces.
Another Johannesburg lawyer David Dadic said he and other legal professionals "are quite stunned by the decision... that the death behind the door, irrespective of who the victim was, was not foreseeable."
Lawyers also expect that Pistorius will be convicted on separate charges of twice discharging a firearm in public and ammunition possession, for which he may be jailed, lose his licence or face a fine.
The verdict is the climax of a six-month murder trial that 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 girlfriend's head "exploded" like a watermelon under the impact of his hollow-point bullets.
James Grant, Wits University criminal law professor James Grant noted the state could appeal if they believe there has been an legal error. — AFP