Legal struggle looms as Pistorius guilty of Steenkamp murder

Paralympian faces at least 15 years in prison after manslaughter verdict revised

South Africa's supreme court of appeal has found Oscar Pistorius guilty of murder, marking another dramatic day in a case that has gripped the world from the moment news first broke of Reeva Steenkamp's death.

Pistorius’s sentence will now be revised accordingly at the Pretoria high court, although no dates for this have been announced, and the Olympic and Paralympic athlete is expected to return to jail.

The ruling comes just weeks after Pistorius was released from prison into the relative luxury of correctional supervision, which he has spent at his uncle Arnold’s home in Pretoria.

The appeal court ruling means he is unlikely to be there for much longer: the minimum sentence for murder is 15 years in prison, three times the term he received following his original conviction of culpable homicide, the South African equivalent of manslaughter.


Even the judges at the supreme court of appeal were not immune from the extraordinary highs and lows of Pistorius's story, with Justice Eric Leach – who read the judgment in Bloemfontein on Thursday morning – summing it up in unusually descriptive terms.

Shakespearean tragedy

“This case involves a human tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. A young man overcomes huge physical disabilities to reach Olympian heights as an athlete. 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.”

There are more legal battles to come, however – first a sentencing hearing on the new murder conviction, and then a possible constitutional court hearing. Pistorius’s disability - he is a double amputee – will be central to defence arguments, and may be what elevates the case from a criminal to a constitutional matter.

“First, the sentencing procedure has to get under way. There’s a minimum 15 years sentence for murder, but there is judicial discretion on this, if there are compelling circumstances. We will hear evidence about his disability and how he’s not an appropriate candidate for a long incarceration, especially because his psychiatric report revealed he had suicidal tendencies,” said Karyn Maughan, a journalist with local broadcaster eNCA who has been following the trial closely.

Maughan said the defence may invoke his disability to take the matter to the constitutional court. "They could say that the appeal court fundamentally misinterpreted dolus eventualis, and that they didn't give due account to his status as a double amputee or his general anxiety disorder. These are psychiatric issues which may mean he shouldn't be evaluated by the same standards as others."

Before the Pistorius case, few in South Africa had ever heard of dolus eventualis, or indirect intention, the obscure legal concept around which the Pistorius case revolves.

In simple terms: did Pistorius contemplate the possibility that he might kill somebody when he pumped four bullets into the bathroom door? And, having contemplated that possibility, did he choose to proceed anyway, recklessly endangering someone’s life in the process?

The appeal court’s verdict on these questions was unanimous. “In these circumstances, I have no doubt that in firing the fatal shots the accused must have foreseen that whoever was behind the toilet door might die, but reconciled with that event occurring, and gambled with that person’s life,” said Justice Leach, reversing the trial judge Thokozile Masipa’s decision on the matter.

The court also found that Pistorius was not justified in claiming that he thought his own life was in danger, again overturning Judge Masipa’s ruling.

Kelly Phelps, criminal law expert at the University of Cape Town, argued that the appeal court's determination on dolus eventualis was not sufficient in itself to overturn Pistorius's conviction for culpable homicide; but when he could no longer rely on putative private defence, this became inevitable.

"Dolus eventualis ended up being the least impactful part of this case in terms of the ultimate verdict. The real punchline of this judgment was actually the reversal of Judge Masipa's factual finding on putative private defence."

Exceptional terrain

She said she believed the case was headed for the constitutional court. “In a case like this, which is already in exceptional terrain because the state has taken the unusual step of appealing a conviction, there are big legal questions around double jeopardy and the legal ambit of the supreme court of appeal,” she said.

Another potential ground for a further appeal is the unprecedented media coverage that the case has received. In the original trial, Pistorius’s defence put it on record that a number of witnesses refused to testify as they were afraid of being in the spotlight. This, it could be argued, has compromised his right to a fair trial.

In a short statement, Pistorius’s family said they will be guided by Pistorius’s legal team in terms of their next steps. “We will not be commenting any further at this stage,” they said.

While for Pistorius the continued legal battles are his only chance of avoiding more prison time, for Reeva Steenkamp’s family the saga merely prolongs their heartache. They have been forced to grieve in public, in the full glare of the world’s attention. For June Steenkamp, Reeva’s mother, it all became too much, and after the ruling was announced, she sobbed outside the court.

For Reeva's father, Barry Steenkamp, the decision represented some kind of closure. "I would hope to God that all of this could have been prevented, but seeing that it has been done, let us now all get on with our lives," he said.

The ruling was welcomed by the African National Congress Women's League, who have been vocal critics of Pistorius and strong supporters of the Reevenkamp family. "We are happy with what the judges decided today," said the Free State chair, Mapaseka Nkoane. "We want to say to men out there – let the killings of women stop."

The appeal court's deconstruction of her rulings makes for grim reading for trial judge Judge Masipa, who has been on the receiving end of intense and often personal criticism ever since she issued her judgment last year. – (Guardian service)