Oscar Pistorius verdict: Why the wait?

To the surprise of many, Judge Thokozile Masipa did not give a final verdict Thursday after spending all day discussing the charges against the double amputee track superstar.

Kim Ludbrook/AP
Oscar Pistorius stands in the dock in court in Pretoria, South Africa, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014 for judgement in his murder trail for the shooting death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine's Day in 2013. The judge in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial on Thursday read the reasoning behind her upcoming verdict on whether the double-amputee athlete intentionally killed Steenkamp.

For 42 days over the past six months, South African Olympian Oscar Pistorius has squeezed past crowds of cameramen, sign-toting activists, and gawking onlookers outside his drab Pretoria courtroom to take his seat in front of Judge Thokozile Masipa, who will hand down his murder trial verdict.

And tomorrow, to the surprise of many, Mr. Pistorius will be back for a 43rd day. Ms. Masipa did not deliver a final verdict Thursday after spending all day discussing the charges against the double amputee track superstar.

In a winding, marathon review before the crowded court that only ended in the late afternoon, Masipa acquitted Pistorius of outright murder, and then inched up slowly to what appears a charge of culpable homicide, South Africa’s version of manslaughter. Then the judge abruptly called a recess until Friday morning, leaving everyone wondering. 

This near cliffhanger ending to the day’s proceedings may be a surprise to American observers used to verdicts delivered in minutes. But it was less surprising here in South Africa.

“That highlights a big difference between our legal systems, actually,” says Marius du Toit, a South African defense lawyer who has followed the trial closely. “In your courts, the jury just stands up and says whether someone is guilty or not. But you have no idea the thought process that went on behind closed doors.”

In South Africa, however, there is no jury system. Verdicts in criminal trials are handed down by individual judges, who must go to great lengths to document all of the existing evidence, legislation, and legal precedent in support of their ruling.

What Masipa read to the court today from a thick stack of papers sitting in front of her, was an outline of her analysis of every witness testimony, every argument, and every scrap of evidence that has passed in front of her since the trial began in March.

Few witnesses emerged from her analysis unscathed. Masipa told the prosecution today that its witnesses were too unreliable and its declared facts too murky to finally prove premeditated murder. Then she turned her critical scrutiny onto the defendant, Pistorius, who she said “acted too hastily and used excessive force” on the night of Reeva Steenkamp’s death. She chided him for not acting reasonably.

“Would a reasonable person in the same circumstances as the accused have foreseen the possibility that if he fired four shots at the toilet that whoever was behind the toilet might be struck by the bullets and die as a result?” she asked. “The answer is yes.”

As Masipa slowly unspooled the basis of her ruling, her demeanor was calm and unfluttered, as it has been through the trial.

“When you have lawyers playing to a jury I think it brings a very emotional side into the court,” Mr. du Toit says. “But a judge you can’t sway with emotion. She has to apply the facts, and then show that she’s done so.”

For Pistorius, that means one final night of waiting. And one final morning squeezing through the crowds to face the judge who has already decided his fate.

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