Oscar Pistorius: Relief and tears after murder conviction

By Pumza Fihlani
BBC News, Johannesburg

image copyrightReuters
image captionOscar Pistorius was initially found guilty of culpable homicide in October 2014

In a packed courtroom, with Reeva Steenkamp's family hanging on every word, a judge at South Africa's Supreme Court of Appeal said Oscar Pistorius was guilty of murder.

Overturning a previous conviction for culpable homicide, Justice Eric Leach told the court that when Pistorius decided to fire four shots through a closed toilet door in his home in February 2013, he gambled with a person's life.

Mr Leach, speaking on behalf of a full bench of five judges at the Bloemfontein court, painted a grim picture of how Ms Steenkamp had no escape as Pistorius fired shot after shot into the confined space.

He described Pistorius and Ms Steenkamp's life as Shakespearean - the double amputee had overcome great odds to rise to fame while she was a model with a promising career, until her life was cut tragically short on Valentine's Day.

Threat to life

Handing down the murder verdict, Mr Leech said Pistorius had offered "no acceptable explanation on why he fired shots through a locked toilet door". He said a reasonable person would have foreseen that his actions could kill someone.

It was a severe blow to the defence team's case, which rested on the claim that Pistorius thought he was shooting at an intruder. According to the court, the identity of who was behind the door was irrelevant in establishing liability.

image copyrightEPA
image captionPistorius fired four shots through a locked toilet door, killing Reeva Steenkamp

Judge Thokozile Masipa, who presided over Pistorius' original trial, acquitted the former athlete of murder based on his claim that he thought Ms Steenkamp was still in bed.

But Mr Leech said that the law was clear, and Pistorius' claim of self-defence could not hold.

South Africa has strict laws over when you can legally open fire at someone. It stipulates that you first need to determine that there is a real threat to your life and that there was no other way to counter the threat other than to shoot.

For example, you are not allowed to shoot if you see an intruder climbing over your fence - because a threat to your life has not been firmly established.

In Pistorius' case there was no threat, the court ruled, because the person behind the door never made a move - the supposed intruder never so much as opened the door.

'Bite of the bull terrier'

The prosecution at the appeals court was led by Gerrie Nel, a seasoned prosecutor known in court circles as "the bull terrier".

Mr Nel sought to have Pistorious' original manslaughter verdict overturned, arguing that Judge Masipa had misinterpreted the law of dolus eventualis - murder with intent.

Legal experts and reporters covering the trial joked that the "bite of the bull terrier leaves very little chance of a comeback".

image copyrightAFP
image captionPistorius was released from this jail in Pretoria after serving one year of his original sentence

So what next for Pistorius?

Jail time is unavoidable, says veteran lawyer Mannie Witz. "South African law does not make provision for someone to be placed under house arrest for more than five years, so Pistorius is definitely going back to prison.

"What needs to be established now is for how long."

media captionOscar Pistorius case by numbers

The appeals court has referred the case back to Judge Masipa for sentencing and she will hear evidence from both teams before reaching her decision.

The prescribed minimum sentence for murder is 15 years but Pistorius' lawyers can argue for a lesser sentenced based on time already served and his disability.

Relief and tears

Ms Steenkamp's family, who had expressed disappointment with the culpable homicide ruling, said they were pleased their daughter's killer had been convicted of murder.

"It's a big relief. I feel it's a fair decision," her father, Barry Steenkamp, said in a brief interview on local television station ANN7, before breaking down in tears.

image copyrightAFP
image captionReeva Steenkamp's mother June (centre) was in court for the ruling

Despite criticising aspects of her ruling, the appeals court acknowledged Judge Masipa's role in the case, saying their decision was not an indictment on her expertise or credibility.

Mr Witz agreed: "Mistakes can happen in any court, what's important to note is that judges are not afraid to correct those mistakes.

"It's a good indication of the effectiveness of our justice system."

Many South Africans took to social media to praise the decision, with some saying justice had "finally" been served.

The ruling is expected to go a long way to showing that no-one is above the law - not even South Africa's once beloved "blade runner".