South African Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius hides his face in his hands… (Antoine de Ras / AFP/Getty…)
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The family of South African double amputee Oscar Pistorius denied Friday that the Olympic athlete had murdered his girlfriend, releasing a statement shortly after he broke down and wept during his first court appearance.
Pistorius, revered for overcoming his disability to compete in the London Olympics last year, is facing a murder charge in the shooting of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine's Day, a tragedy that shocked and divided South Africans.
Pistorius did not enter a plea Friday. Instead, the denial was made in a news statement issued by his family and management company that said: "The alleged murder is disputed in the strongest possible terms." It has no legal force but suggests that Pistorius is likely to plead not guilty.
PHOTOS: Oscar Pistorius faces murder charges
One of the National Prosecuting Authority's most senior advocates, Gerrie Nel, is prosecuting the case. He said he would argue that the killing was premeditated murder, the most serious category of offense under law in South Africa, which abolished capital punishment in 1995.
Arguments over Pistorius' bail application will be heard Tuesday, when some details of his defense and the prosecution case are expected. Until then, he was remanded into custody.
The family statement said the runner wanted to "send his deepest sympathies" to Steenkamp's family.
"He would also like to express his thanks through us today for all the messages of support he has received, but as stated our thoughts and prayers today should be for Reeva and her family, regardless of the circumstances of this terrible, terrible tragedy," the statement read.
Under South African law, an accused person charged with an offense of such gravity would have to prove exceptional circumstances to be granted bail. Defense lawyers are expected to request that the seriousness of the charge be downgraded in order to support the bail application.
Nel is known for prosecuting high-profile cases, including the successful conviction of former police chief and Interpol boss Jackie Selebi on corruption charges.
Members of Pistorius' family struggled to make it through the scrum of journalists and find seats at the court hearing, which coincided with "Black Friday," when South Africans were urged to wear black to protest violence against women. It followed a recent brutal gang rape and slaying in South Africa.
One of Steenkamp's last tweets was a call on people to join the protest.
Pistorius appeared as South African news reports said that he shot Steenkamp four times through a bathroom door, citing a neighbor who spoke with security guards. If true, this might complicate efforts to mount a defense that the runner mistook Steenkamp for an intruder. Under South African law, a person who fatally shoots an intruder has to prove he or she had a reasonable fear that the intruder posed a real threat to his or her life.
While many fans took to social media to declare their support for Pistorius and belief in his innocence, there were also damaging rumors and allegations.
Beeld newspaper reported that security at Pistorius' upscale complex had been upgraded and that one resident maintained it wouldn't be possible for an intruder to gain access. The newspaper claimed that police were called to Pistorius' house about two hours before the shooting because of an argument between the couple. Officers were called back by a neighbor who heard shots about 3 a.m., about the time the shooting took place, the newspaper reported.
South Africa has one of the world's highest rates of gun homicides, with slayings by intimate partners the leading category of homicides among women. In 2009, 57% of female homicide victims were killed by their partners, according to a report last year by the Medical Research Council. A third of the female victims were slain by partners with a history of violence against them, according to the report, "Every Eight Hours."
PHOTOS: Oscar Pistorius faces murder charges
Friends of Steenkamp and Pistorius mourned the death on social media.
"Drained , confused , I just can't wrap my head around things," one of Pistorius' close friends, Alex Pilakoutas, posted on Twitter. Darren Fresco, who described himself as one of Steenkamp's best friends, said he was hoping to wake from a nightmare and hear her infectious laughter again.
"We were just goofing off the other day talking to each other in only the way that we could to each other. My heart is on the verge of exploding with the pain of such a sudden loss of one of my best friends," Fresco posted on Facebook.