By Sarah Lyall and Alan Cowell
Oscar Pistorius in court on Friday as he was convicted in the shooting death of his girlfriend. Credit Alon Skuy/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
PRETORIA, South Africa — The murder trial of the Paralympic star Oscar Pistorius lurched to a close on Friday when he was convicted of culpable homicide in the shooting death last year of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
But in a case that reflected South Africa’s complicated obsession with race, crime and celebrity, many South Africans found understanding the verdict to be as difficult as trying to fathom exactly what was in Mr. Pistorius’s mind the night he pulled the trigger.
It is unclear yet whether Mr. Pistorius, who was acquitted of the two more serious murder charges against him, will do time in jail. The sentence for culpable homicide, a crime roughly commensurate with involuntary manslaughter, is left to the discretion of the judge and can range from no jail time to, in the most extreme cases, 15 years in prison. Lawyers say that often the sentences are very light.
Completing her two-day reading of the verdict on Friday, Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa scheduled the sentencing hearing for Oct. 13 and — over the angry objections of the prosecutor, Gerrie Nel — granted bail to Mr. Pistorius until then.
Some South Africans felt that Mr. Pistorius got off too lightly. “Will Oscar Walk?” said the headline in The Star newspaper.
On Twitter, Trevor Noah, a comedian, asked why Molemo Maarohanye, a black rap star known as Jub Jub, had been sentenced to 25 years in prison for killing four people with his car while driving under the influence of drugs, while “Oscar went to fetch a gun but he gets less time?” And on the News24 website, a commenter named Peter Tracey called the verdict “a very sad indictment of our justice system.”
Friday’s proceedings were the culmination of a grueling roller-coaster of a trial that began in March, a little more than a year after Mr. Pistorius grabbed a handgun in the middle of the night on Valentine’s Day, pumped four shots through the locked door of his bathroom and killed Ms. Steenkamp, 29.
The world may never know what he was thinking that night; perhaps even he does not know. But while many saw his account as implausible, the defense he gave — that he believed an intruder had broken into his house and was lurking in the bathroom, and that it did not occur to him that Ms. Steenkamp could have been in there — spoke to many South Africans’ deep fear of crime and home invasions.
Mr. Pistorius’s story was vehemently disputed by Mr. Nel, the pugnacious prosecutor, who portrayed him as volatile, spoiled, jealous and obsessed with guns. He contended that Mr. Pistorius had killed Ms. Steenkamp, a law graduate and reality television star, in a fit of rage as the two argued late into the night.
Much the way the O. J. Simpson trial became an obsession in the United States years ago, the Pistorius case has riveted South Africa. Mr. Pistorius was for years a national hero for the way he rose above his disability, competing against both disabled and able-bodied athletes in international competitions.
Born without fibula bones, both his legs were amputated below the knee when he was a baby and he later became known, admiringly, as the Blade Runner, for the scythe-like curved prostheses he used while competing, including in the 2012 London Olympics.
Handsome, charming, extraordinarily gifted as an athlete, Mr. Pistorius became an emblem of South Africa’s pride and craving for international acclaim. He carried the flag for his country in the closing ceremony of the London Games.
But the killing of Ms. Steenkamp stripped the sheen off what had been a story of success and celebrity, exposing an uglier side to Mr. Pistorius — a side in which he had a mercurial temper, was a jealous and sometimes angry boyfriend, drove too fast, was enamored of and irresponsible with guns, and used his celebrity to get what he wanted.
The case raised many questions — about fame, disability, crime, violence against women, class and, looming always in the background, race — in a country uneasy about where it stands on many of those matters.
Many of these collided in the courtroom. The trial of Mr. Pistorius — white, rich, privileged — was presided over by a judge who is a 66-year-old black woman who grew up poor in Soweto, began studying law in the throes of apartheid, had been arrested during a protest, and did not earn a law degree until she was in her 40s.
The courtroom, too, reflected a reality of race in South Africa: virtually all the principals — the lawyers, the accused, the families — were white, while virtually all the court functionaries, security guards and cleaners were black.
While the verdict enraged some South Africans, who said it sent a terrible message about domestic violence and also gave people the right to kill and then claim they had not meant to do it, it also reflected what seems to be a preoccupation of Judge Masipa: great indignation about possible overreach by the prosecution.
She raised questions about the defense, calling Mr. Pistorius an unimpressive and evasive witness whose histrionics in court — he sobbed uncontrollably and retched at times — did him no favors. But time and again, she criticized the prosecution for failing to prove its case on the more serious murder charges to the standards required in law, beyond a reasonable doubt.
In a further blow to the prosecution, Judge Masipa on Friday acquitted Mr. Pistorius of two of the three firearms charges against him, saying the state had failed to provide enough evidence. She declared him guilty on one charge, of illegally firing a gun that had been passed to him under a table in a crowded restaurant during a previous episode.
As far as the murder charges, because the prosecution had failed to bring “strong circumstantial evidence,” the judge said, Mr. Pistorius’s account “could reasonably be true.” It was impossible to prove, she said, that Mr. Pistorius “did not entertain a genuine belief that there was an intruder in the house.”
As he was pronounced not guilty of murder on Thursday, Mr. Pistorius kept perfectly still, tears and mucous pouring from his eyes and nose. When the judge found him guilty of culpable homicide, he barely reacted at all.
Sometime after court adjourned on Friday, Mr. Pistorius made his way through the scrum of reporters and onlookers, free — at least until his sentencing hearing. And then the uncle with whom he has been living during the trial, Arnold Pistorius, read a statement out loud.
“We as a family remain deeply affected by this devastating tragedy,” he said. “There are no victors in this.”
Sarah Lyall reported from Pretoria, and Alan Cowell from London.