Pistorius found guilty of manslaughter. But could he go free?

South African Judge Masipa threw out a murder charge against the star Olympic athlete, but said a 'reasonable person' would have taken steps to avoid what happened as he shot bullets through a bathroom door, killing his girlfriend. Sentencing is mid-October.

Alon Skuy/AP
Oscar Pistorius in court in Pretoria, South Africa, Friday, Sept. 12, 2014. In passing judgement judge Thokozile Masipa ruled out a murder conviction for the double-amputee Olympian in the shooting death of his girlfriend but said he was negligent and convicted him of culpable homicide.

After spending Thursday ruling out a murder verdict, South African Judge Thokozile Masipa today found famed Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius guilty of culpable homicide – the equivalent of manslaughter – in the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine's Day, 2013.

"The accused fired shots into the toilet door knowing there was someone behind that toilet door,” Judge Masipa told the court, describing the fateful events that led to Ms. Steenkamp's death in Mr. Pistorius's swanky townhouse.

“A reasonable person in the position of the accused – with a similar disability – would have foreseen the possibility that whoever was behind the door might be killed by the shots and would have taken steps to avoid that consequence,” the judge said. Masipa also found the track star, the first amputee to compete in the Olympics and one of South Africa’s most lauded athletes, guilty of unlawfully discharging a firearm in a crowded Johannesburg restaurant in January 2013. 

But Pistorius's sentencing won't come until mid-October – and legal experts are already debating a question that will like be a flashpoint: whether he will spend the maximum of 15 years in prison, or no time at all. The judge will weigh Pistorius's actions in killing Steenkamp against his prior record.  

The verdict brings a provisional end to a drama that has captivated South Africa and the world since early on Feb. 14, 2013, when news broke that Pistorius had fired four shots into his own locked bathroom door, killing the woman huddled on the other side. As the case wound its way through a clunky police investigation and an exacting, six-month trial, it drew unprecedented international attention to how one of the world’s most violent societies manages matters of criminal justice.

The portrait that emerged was at times profoundly unflattering.

Despite intense international scrutiny, police fumbled with key pieces of evidence. In one case, they handled the murder weapon without gloves; in another, they removed the bullet-riddled bathroom door from the scene of the crime. Two designer watches disappeared from Pistorius’s bedroom during the initial police sweep, and Hilton Botha, the detective charged with leading the investigation, resigned in disgrace after it emerged that he himself was facing an attempted murder charge.

“[Mr. Botha] made some very basic mistakes,” Johan Burger, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria and a former police officer, told the Monitor. “Because this was a very prominent case and it was exposed very quickly, they were able to hire a new detective. But would a murder in a township receive that same kind of scrutiny? I doubt it.”

Meanwhile, Pistorius’s defense – that he heard an intruder moving through his home and reacted by shooting blindly – painted an unforgiving picture of a society where it seemed police could not be trusted and frontier justice ruled, even in the gated suburbia of the uber-wealthy.

But as the case inched into court, the justice system began to look far less hapless.

From the earliest days of the case, Masipa briskly managed the courtroom, reeling in lawyers and witnesses with even-handed discipline.

“A judge is there to make sure the court runs properly and by the law, and she’s done that,” says Cape Town criminal lawyer William Booth. “She’s come across as very objective, which is important because we have a Constitution that says everyone is entitled to a fair trial in this country, no matter who they are.”

It was not long ago in this country that Masipa was on the receiving end of a far less just South African judicial system. A former court reporter and social worker, she was once arrested in the 1970s for organizing an anti-apartheid demonstration in downtown Johannesburg.

In the judiciary of the new South Africa, however, she had the sole authority for steering one if its most prominent trials and rendering the verdict. The mostly white and mostly male parties to the case were compelled to defer to her authority and call her by the honorific “My Lady.”

As the first trial in this country ever to be live-broadcast in its entirety, the Pistorius case has also opened South Africa’s courts to an unprecedented level of public scrutiny.

That access, Masipa said, has been a double-edged sword for rendering justice.

“I am of the view that some witnesses failed to separate what they knew personally [of the night of the killing] from what they had heard from other people or what they had gathered from the media,” Masipa told the court during her verdict, dismissing in a single sweep the testimony of several of Pistorius’s neighbors who claimed they had heard portions of the night’s events.

For many outside observers, however, the incredible visibility of the case made the often-inscrutable workings of the justice system plain to the public for the first time.

“The case certainly has shown the South African criminal justice system to both South Africans and the rest of the world, and I think that’s a good thing,” Mr. Booth says. “But one should not forget there are other cases going on all the time in this country that deserve attention as well.”

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