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Oscar Pistorius to be charged with premeditated murder, judge rules

February 19, 2013|By Robyn Dixon
  • South African Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius hides his face in his hands during a hearing on a charge of murdering his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine's Day.
South African Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius hides his face in his hands… (Antoine de Ras / AFP/Getty…)

PRETORIA, South Africa -- As his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, cowered behind a locked door in a tiny bathroom, Oscar Pistorius strapped on his prosthetic legs, grabbed his pistol, strode seven yards to the door and fired through it four times, killing her, prosecutors alleged Tuesday as they laid out their case against the double-amputee Olympic runner in Pretoria Magistrate’s Court.

According to prosecutor Gerrie Nel, Pistorius’ actions amounted to premeditated murder.

In a major blow for Pistorius, Chief Magistrate Desmond Nair sided with the prosecution, ruling that for the purposes of the bail hearing the charge against Pistorius was premeditated murder, a decision that will make it difficult for him to be granted bail.

Under South African law, those charged with a category six offense, the most serious category, must show exceptional circumstances as to why they should be released on bail.

Pistorius may now face months in jail before his trial. If convicted of premeditated murder, he would face life in prison.

The hearing took place at the same time as Steenkamp's family was holding a private funeral for the model.

Though Tuesday’s proceedings were a bail hearing, some of the main contentions of the prosecution and defense cases were aired.

Pistorius' defense attorney, Barry Roux, denied there had been any murder, and the runner’s family has made it clear that he will plead not guilty when his trial begins.

Nel said there was no evidence available that supported the athlete’s contention that he thought Steenkamp was a burglar and shot and killed her by mistake.

"There is no possible information to support his version that it was a burglar," Nel said.

But even if he had made that mistake, Nel argued, it would still have been a premeditated murder because he shot through the door into a tiny room, measuring no more than 16 square feet.

He said the couple had argued and that Steenkamp fled to the toilet, seven yards from the bedroom and locked herself in.

No one would fire into a room of that size hoping to merely scare off a burglar, Nel said, adding that the motive of shooting in that fashion was to kill, because there was no way for Steenkamp to escape the bullets.

"She couldn't go anywhere. You can run nowhere,” Nel said. "It must have been horrific."

Nel argued that up until the moment he shot her, Pistorius’ plan was to kill Steenkamp, although afterward he might have regretted his actions.

Later, he carried her body downstairs, leaving a trail of blood, prosecutors said.

Pistorius wept through much of the hearing, while his brother, Carl Pistorius, put his hand on the athlete’s back in a gesture of comfort. Asked by Nair if he understood the arguments being made, Pistorius replied in a soft, clear voice, "Yes."

Roux argued that the killing was not premeditated. "It’s not even murder. There's no agreement there, not even concession that this is murder," he said, adding that there were many cases of men shooting their wives through doors, mistaking them for robbers.

The main focus of Tuesday’s dramatic court hearing was whether Pistorius’ actions amounted to premeditated murder, the most serious category of homicide, requiring Pistorius to show exceptional circumstances to justify his release on bail. If the defense had succeeded in persuading Nair that the case merited a less serious charge, Pistorius’ chances of getting bail would have improved.

There was no mention in court Tuesday of a bloodied cricket bat allegedly found in Pistorius’ apartment the night of the killing. Such a bat has been widely reported in South African media as playing an important role in the state's case against Pistorious.

The prosecution's plans for the case were apparently leaked and have been widely aired in South Africa, where there is no jury system. Magistrates and judges are seen as able to judge the merits of a case without being swayed by media coverage.

As Pistorius’ bail hearing unfolded in Pretoria, Steenkamp’s coffin, draped in a white cloth and decked with white flowers, arrived at the Victoria Park crematorium in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth for a private funeral.

Reflecting the divisions the case has caused in South Africa, officials of the ruling African National Congress Women’s League called for Pistorius to be denied bail. South African Minister for Women’s Affairs Lulu Xingwana joined a group of ANC Women’s League protesters outside the court Tuesday.

"It does not matter what standing Pistorius has in society,” she said. “We want him to be treated like other criminals who have been charged with murder or abuse of women."

Eastern Cape ANC Women’s League secretary, Nancy Sihlwayi, told reporters in Port Elizabeth that Pistorius "must die in jail," according to local media reports.

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