Oscar Pistorius convicted of murder

Oscar Pistorius will return to prison after an appeals court found him guilty of murder for killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. The appeals court overturned his previous conviction of culpable homicide and unanimously agreed that errors had been made in law when convicting the paralympian medalist. The Supreme Court judgment was handed down in Bloemfontein, South Africa, on Dec. 3.

Mr. Pistorius shot and killed Ms. Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day in 2013. He said that he thought she was an intruder.

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The Supreme Court has ordered the original trial judge, Justice Thokozile Masipa, to impose a harsher sentence on Mr. Pistorius. He was released from prison on parole on Oct. 20 after serving less than a year of his five-year sentence. He was placed under strict house arrest conditions and ordered to do community service.

It is not yet clear whether Mr. Pistorius will return to prison immediately or if he will be allowed to remain in correctional supervision as per his parole conditions until a new sentence is handed down. The minimum sentence for murder in South Africa is 15 years in prison.

“The accused ought to have been found guilty of murder,” said Justice Eric Leach, who read out an abridged version of the judgment on behalf of the Supreme Court of Appeal. Judge Leach described Ms. Steenkamp’s death as “a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.” He also said that crucial evidence had been ignored in the previous judgment.

Mr. Pistorius and his family were not in the court in Bloemfontein when the judgment was delivered. Reeva Steenkamp’s mother, June, was present.

The crux of the state’s appeal against the judgment given by Judge Masipa revolved around the legal concept of dolus eventualis—or indirect intention. Could Mr. Pistorius have foreseen the possibility that he might kill somebody when he fired four shots into the bathroom door? The appeals court ruled that trial judge Thokozile Masipa had applied this concept incorrectly, saying that her ruling was “confusing in various respects.” Mr. Pistorius's defense attorneys had argued that the prosecution's appeal essentially constituted a case of "double jeopardy"—prohibited under South African law. But the state's central argument prevailed.

Judge Leach said that Mr. Pistorius did have the requisite legal intention to be found guilty of murder. “In these circumstances, I have no doubt that in firing the fatal shots the accused must have foreseen that whoever was behind the toilet door might die, but reconciled with that event occurring, and gambled with that person’s life.”

Judge Leach was very critical of Mr. Pistorius’s inconsistent testimony in the original trial. “In the light of these contradictions, one does not really know what his explanation is for having fired the fatal shots.” He went on to say that the athlete had no rational basis to believe his life was in danger, which he claimed in his trial, when he fired the four shots into the cubicle door.

The case will now return to the Pretoria High Court for sentencing.

Although critical of Judge Masipa, Judge Leach was at pains to emphasize that the appeal judgment should not be seen as an attack on her competence. He said that the unprecedented international spotlight generated incredible pressure and so this should also be taken into account when assessing her performance. “The trial judge conducted the hearing with a dignity and competence that is a credit to the judiciary of this country. The fact the appeal has succeeded is not to be seen as a slight on the trial judge,” he said.

Mr. Pistorius’s murder conviction has been handed down in the middle of an annual 16-day campaign in South Africa against women and child abuse. There are high levels of abuse of women in South Africa and so many groups see the judgment as a victory for those campaigning against abuse.

Ms. Steenkamp’s father said that justice had finally prevailed and that he now hopes that both families can move on with their lives.

In a statement, after the appeals court judgment, the Pistorius family said that they have “taken note of the judgment” and that they would wait for their legal team to study the finding and “will be guided by them in terms of options going forward.”

South African Minister of Justice, Michael Masuthu, congratulated the National Prosecuting Authority for successfully appealing Mr. Pistorius’s conviction. He said that it paved the way for the state to follow through with appeals in such cases in future.

It is uncertain when the Blade Runner will know his fate. A court date for his murder sentence still has to be set. 

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