Oscar Pistorius murder trial verdict is due

Alan Cowell

More than 18 months after he shot and killed his glamorous girlfriend, Oscar Pistorius, a onetime track star on a gilded trajectory of triumph and success, is set to face judgment on Thursday when the judge in his trial on murder and firearms charges pronounces her verdict.

Mr. Pistorius's case has unfolded with drama and histrionics, transfixing a global audience for whom sports and celebrity fuse in the glare of media coverage. Every word of his trial has been broadcast and Twitter feeds have chronicled every argument and counterargument.

Mr. Pistorius, 27, has wept, wailed and retched, confronted by a prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, nicknamed the Pitbull, who has been bent on destroying the athlete's credibility. He has been sent for psychiatric assessment, and found well enough to stand trial. He has been depicted, by the prosecution, as a jealous, trigger-happy, anger-prone egotist and, by the defense, as a young man burdened by the anxieties and insecurities of disability stemming from the amputation of both his legs below the knee as an infant.

Oscar Pistorius appears for his bail hearing in the Pretoria Magistrate Court on February 20, 2013 in Pretoria, South Africa.
Liza Van Deventer | Foto24 | Getty Images

From beginning to end, the case came down to this: in the early morning of Feb. 14, 2013, did Mr. Pistorius kill his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, 29, a model and law-school graduate, in a jealous rage? Or did he, as he asserts, open fire on the locked bathroom door, behind which Ms. Steenkamp died, in the belief that an intruder was about to emerge from it?

Either way, the months of hearings have focused on those moments when Mr. Pistorius, walking on his stumps and brandishing a 9 mm handgun loaded with hollow-point ammunition, fired four rounds in his darkened home. Only two people were present and, as Mr. Nel has said, only one survived to tell the tale. The other, the prosecutor repeatedly reminded Mr. Pistorius, is dead.

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In perhaps one of the most brutal collisions of the trial in April, Mr. Nel demanded that Mr. Pistorius look at a grisly photograph of the shot-open head of Ms. Steenkamp. "That's it — have a look, Mr. Pistorius!" the prosecutor snapped.

His voice breaking and rising on a wave of emotion, Mr. Pistorius recalled the moments after he discovered her body in the bathroom. "As I picked Reeva up, my fingers touched her head. I remember," he said. "I don't have to look at a picture. I was there."

The trial reached far beyond the arguments of the case.

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The judge, Thokozile Matilda Masipa, is a black former social worker and journalist, presiding inscrutably over a court in which lawyers, defendants and most of the witnesses are white. Mr. Nel, the lead prosecutor, and Barry Roux, the main defense lawyer, are both from the country's Afrikaner elite that once codified racial supremacy in the body of law that underpinned apartheid.

South Africa's unfinished racial journey, thus, has been on trial as much as Mr. Pistorius or the legal system that seeks to bring justice to a tangled case.

That point was not lost among the many foreign observers of the trial. "It is an irony lost on no one that in a country with such a prominent history of racial tension, the world will be watching on Thursday as a black woman who grew up in the poor townships of South Africa sits in judgment of a white man of class, privilege and wealth," wrote Lisa Davies in the Sydney Morning Herald.

If Mr. Pistorius, a Paralympic champion and Olympic sprinter, is found guilty of premeditated murder, he faces a mandatory life sentence with a minimum 25-year jail term before he is permitted to seek parole. But sentencing could be more complicated.

William Booth, a South African defense lawyer, told the Cape Town Press Club this month that there was "quite a significant risk" that Mr. Pistorius could be convicted of murdering the intruder he thought was in his home. Anyone firing into such a confined space must have known the risks, Mr. Booth said.

Mr. Nel has derided Mr. Pistorius's version of events and accused him of lying and inconsistency in his defense.

State prosecutors, however, must prove Mr. Pistorius's guilt beyond reasonable doubt, Mr. Booth said, and, if the judge accepted his version, other factors would weigh in the balance, such as his emotional state and South Africa's high levels of violent crime.

Mr. Booth said an alternative charge of culpable homicide, carrying a lesser prison term and offering the judge greater discretion in sentencing, could also be considered. Since there are no jury trials in South Africa, Judge Masipa, assisted by two assessors, will decide the case. Some South African legal analysts said her summing-up of the testimony could run into Friday, delaying the pronouncement of the verdict.

The judgment may not, however, be the last word since the case could still go to a higher court on appeal, South African legal experts said.

From other perspectives, the trial has been depicted in South Africa as a morality tale — a saga that began with triumph in the face of adversity as Mr. Pistorius competed in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games in London in 2012, and ended just a few months later in anguish and bloodshed.