By Zaheer Cassim and Stephanie Jones-Berry, Special for USA TODAY
JOHANNESBURG – A judge ruled on Thursday that South African athlete Oscar Pistorius was not guilty of premeditated murder in the shooting death of his girlfriend. But the judge found him “negligent,” raising the prospect of a manslaughter conviction.
Judge Thokozile Masipa read a lengthy explanation of the evidence and charges, then recessed the court until Friday without rendering a final verdict.
She told the court that she found Pistorius “acted too hastily and used excessive force” when he fired four times into the closed bathroom door in his apartment, killing Reeva Steenkamp, 29.
“It is clear that his conduct was negligent,” she said.
The Olympic and Paralympic athlete, known as the Blade Runner for his use of specially designed prosthetic legs, was on trial for the shooting death of Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day in 2013.
Prosecutors accused Pistorius of intentionally killing her by firing through the toilet door where, they alleged, she had taken refuge following an argument.
Pistorius claimed he thought Steenkamp was in bed and that he accidentally shot her through the door, mistakenly believing there was an intruder in his home.
The judge said state prosecutors had failed to prove that Pistorius, 27, is guilty of either premeditated murder or second-degree murder, thus ruling out those charges.
Seated in the dock, Pistorius frequently sobbed and held his head in his hands as the judge ruled on the most serious charges.
If Pistorius had been found guilty of premeditated murder, he could be sentenced to 25 years in prison. A conviction of culpable homicide, the term for manslaughter in South Africa, carries a maximum 15-year prison sentence.
After a lunch break, the judge criticized Pistorius for his conduct the night of the killing.
A reasonable person, she said, “would have foreseen if he fired shots at the door, the person inside the toilet might be struck and die as a result.”
If he had felt threatened by an intruder, the judge said, “all the accused had to do was to pick up his cellphone to call security or the police. He could have run to the balcony and screamed in the same way he had screamed after the incident.”
Pistorius, she said, “had reasonable time to reflect, to think and to conduct himself reasonably.”
The defendant also faces a verdict on two charges relating to the discharge of a firearm in a public place and one charge of illegal possession of ammunition. Masipa, not a jury, decided the verdict in line with South African legal custom.
The judge called Pistorius “evasive” on the stand and a “very poor witness” who often contradicted himself, but she said the state had not proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
“During his evidence, he seemed composed and logical … (but) under cross-examination he lost his composure … (and it seemed) the accused was suffering from enormous emotional stress and was traumatized by reliving the incident,” she said.
“The accused therefore cannot be found guilty of murder dolus eventualis (legal intent) … that however is not the end of the matter as culpable homicide is a competent verdict,” said Masipa.
The trial, which began March 3, riveted South Africans. Thursday’s developments brought a range of responses from Johannesburg residents.
“He is lying, he should be (found) just guilty,” said Thapelo Seilane, 28, an assistant administrator. “So she got it wrong – it shows that our legal system is bad in South Africa. He can still go to jail for culpable homicide.”
Nadia Naiker, 29, an accountant, said she was glad the trial had ended, hoping the closure will help Steenkamp’s family and allow justice to be served.
“The trial has created international buzz, as Oscar was an international sports icon – the world watched and I think that the outcome and the way the evidence was dealt with will be a reflection to the international world of the South African judicial system,” she said.