JOHANNESBURG – An appeals court decided Thursday that Oscar Pistorius got away with murder when he stood trial for killing his girlfriend, a ruling that will almost certainly send the disgraced Olympian back to prison.
The court overturned his conviction on the lesser charge of manslaughter in the 2013 shooting death of model Reeva Steenkamp and instead found Pistorius guilty of murder.
The latest dramatic twist in the case of the double amputee runner was “a human tragedy of Shakespearean proportions,” wrote Justice Lorimer Eric Leach.
Pistorius, who is under house arrest at his uncle’s mansion in Pretoria, was not in the Bloemfontein courtroom for the verdict. Steenkamp’s mother, June, sat impassively as Leach read the verdict.
The 29-year-old Pistorius served one year of a five-year sentence before being put under house arrest in October.
The minimum sentence for murder in South Africa is 15 years, but exceptional circumstances in the case of the former track star, including time served, his disability and his status as a first-time offender, could mean a lower sentence.
Sentencing is up to the North Gauteng High Court, where Pistorius was tried. South African media said Judge Thokozile Masipa, who presided over the original trial, will handle the matter. No sentencing date has been set.
The Pistorius family said in a statement: “The legal team will study the finding and we will be guided by them in terms of options going forward.”
Steenkamp’s father, Barry, told South African television channel ANN7 that the judgment was fair.
“Let us now all get on with our lives,” he said.
His voice breaking with emotion, he said of his daughter: “I’m sure she’ll be able to rest as well now.”
Pistorius’ trial riveted people around the world because of its gripping saga of a celebrity athlete’s plunge from grace by his own actions.
His legs were amputated below the knees when he was 11 months old because he was born without fibula bones due to a congenital defect. However, he grew up playing sports with prosthetics and became a multiple Paralympic champion known as the “Blade Runner” for his carbon-fiber running blades. The sight of Pistorius racing at the 2012 London Olympics was one of the enduring and inspirational images of the games.
“A young man overcomes huge physical disabilities to reach Olympian heights as an athlete,” Leach said while delivering the ruling on behalf of the five-judge appeals court.
“In doing so, he becomes an international celebrity. He meets a young woman of great natural beauty and a successful model. Romance blossoms and then ironically, on Valentine’s Day, all is destroyed when he takes her life,” he said.
The trial also highlighted the issue of violence against women. Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model who appeared in a reality TV show, had planned to give a speech touching on domestic abuse and family relationships at a school on the day she died.
Pistorius insisted he shot Steenkamp by mistake, thinking there was an intruder behind the door of a toilet cubicle in his home. The prosecution said Pistorius shot Steenkamp during an argument.
Prosecutors in South Africa can appeal convictions on questions of law, and Leach found that Masipa committed an “error in law” by incorrectly applying a legal principle called “dolus eventualis.”
Under that concept, a person can be convicted of murder if he or she foresaw the possibility of someone dying through their actions and went ahead anyway.
Leach said that regardless of who Pistorius said he thought was behind the door, he should have known someone could be killed if he fired.
“The accused ought to have been found guilty of murder on the basis that he had fired the fatal shots with criminal intent,” Leach said.
He also witheringly described Pistorius’ often tearful trial testimony as “vacillating and untruthful.”
Johann Engelbrecht, a criminal lawyer who is not involved in the Pistorius case, said it is doubtful the former athlete’s lawyers could challenge the murder conviction by appealing to the constitutional Court. He speculated that prosecutors would want the sentencing process to proceed swiftly rather than let Pistorius remain under house arrest for an extended period.
There was no sign of Pistorius outside the home of his uncle, Arnold. As the judge began to read the decision, broadcast live on TV, the uncle was seen rushing into the house. Later, the uncle drove off in a car.