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Published December 09, 2015
Did Oscar Pistorius get away with murder?
Judge Thokozile Masipa's decision to acquit Pistorius of murder has left many in South Africa asking that question. Masipa's decision hinged on a little-known Latin term and a complex section of South African law: "Dolus eventualis."
The term means a defendant should be convicted of murder if it's found that they foresaw a possibility that someone would die as a result of their unlawful actions, but continued with the actions anyway and the person was killed. In acquitting the world-famous athlete of murder on Friday, Judge Masipa ruled that Pistorius did not identify at the time that someone might die before he shot four times through a door into a small toilet cubicle, killing Reeva Steenkamp.
Many South Africans — legal analysts and others — find fault with Masipa's conclusion. Here's why the judge ruled the way she did:
Most legal analysts praised Masipa's verdict that Pistorius could not be found guilty of premeditated or pre-planned murder. Masipa called the prosecution's evidence "circumstantial" and said prosecutors did not show pre-planning from the double-amputee Olympic runner. Prosecutors presented evidence from Pistorius' neighbors who testified they heard a woman screaming from his Pretoria villa in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 14, 2013. Masipa rejected that evidence — and with it the prosecution's allegation of a nighttime fight between the couple — saying those witnesses could not be certain that what they heard was screams from a woman.
South African criminal defense lawyer Marius du Toit said Masipa dealt with the premeditated murder charge "brilliantly."
Pistorius' acquittal on a lesser charge of murder without pre-planning is viewed as the most contentious. Prosecutors had urged the judge to consider that even if it was shown that Pistorius believed there was an intruder and not Steenkamp in the cubicle, he still shot knowing that he could kill the person and without any justification. In South Africa, you can be found guilty of murder if you intended to kill one person and another died instead. But Masipa found that Pistorius — in the moments he fired — did not foresee that someone might die and therefore had no ultimate intent to kill.
While prosecutors said they were "disappointed" with the verdict, firearms lawyer Martin Hood said analysts were questioning Masipa's findings.
"Many of us feel she has made incorrect factual findings," Hood said. "And then the application of the law itself seems to have been misunderstood and possibly misapplied. I think there's a lot of uncertainty as to the correctness of the judgment."
Many people questioned how anyone could survive the four bullets shot into the small toilet cubicle.
In a fine line between murder and negligent killing, Masipa explained Pistorius didn't foresee his actions could cause someone to die but a reasonable person in his position should have. She found that Pistorius was therefore negligent in Steenkamp's death and guilty of culpable homicide, even though he had no intent to kill that night.
The judge said Pistorius' acted "too hastily and with excessive force" when he grabbed his gun, went to confront a perceived danger and fired four times.
Chief prosecutor Gerrie Nel said it is now "probable" that Pistorius would go to prison. But the sentence for culpable homicide is left to the judge's discretion and it could range from no jail time to a maximum of 15 years in prison. Du Toit, the criminal defense lawyer, said eight to 10 years for Pistorius would be a severe sentence for this case and would be applicable only if the judge found he was very negligent. Because there is no minimum sentence, Pistorius could receive a fine, a suspended sentence and no jail time.
"People think he got away with murder," Johannesburg resident Veronica Nyathi said. "There were only two people in the house and he shot Reeva. Most people want to see him go to jail."
AP writer Andrew Meldrum contributed to this report from Johannesburg.