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Judge: Oscar Pistorius ‘negligent,’ but not guilty of premeditated murder

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Oscar Pistorius sentenced to six years in killing of girlfriend

Oscar Pistorius, center, arrives at the High Court in Pretoria, South Africa Wednesday, July 6, 2016. A South African judge is expected to announce Oscar Pistorius' sentence for murdering girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in his home on Valentine's Day 2013. (AP Photo/Shiraaz Mohamed)

The prosecution did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius committed premeditated murder in the Valentine’s Day 2013 killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, a South African judge said Thursday morning at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria. However, the judge added that it “is clear that his conduct was negligent.”

Judge Thokozile Masipa’s comment seems to be an indication that she is prepared to find Pistorius guilty of a lesser charge, “culpable homicide.” She will resume delivering her verdict on Friday morning.

“Culpable homicide,” or manslaughter, can carry anything from a suspended sentence to a long jail term, according to the AFP. On Thursday, the judge explained her reasoning on this charge, applying the “reasonable man” test.

In other words, the judge examined whether it was reasonable for Pistorius to fire four shots through his bathroom door at what he believed was an intruder. Although she appeared to stop short of a ruling on the charge before adjourning court until Friday, Masipa did indicate Pistorius did not pass this test.

“All the accused had to do was pick up his cell phone to call security,” Masipa said of Pistorius’s reaction. She added that Pistorius could also have “run to the balcony” and called for help. Masipa added that she was “not persuaded that a reasonable person with the accused’s disabilities in the same circumstances would have fired four shots” into the home’s small bathroom. Pistorius is a double-amputee.

Pistorius killed Steenkamp about six months after he dazzled the world by running in the Olympics on carbon-fiber blades called “Flex-Foot Cheetahs.” He mastered the springy devices so completely that competitors claimed he had an unfair advantage and tried to keep him confined to the Paralympics. So skilled was Pistorius, and so disciplined in his training, that one scientist described him as “a pioneer on the posthuman frontier.”

But the South African known as “Blade Runner” for his incredible sprints on the scythe-like prosthetics proved very human indeed.

Pistorius began to learn his fate Thursday, as the judge read through her summary of the testimony of the key witnesses who appeared during 41 days of trial, explaining what portions she accepts or rejects.

Pistorius, the judge said, was a “very poor witness” who appeared “evasive” on the stand. But she also dismissed the evidence presented by many of the prosecution’s witnesses, and noted that the athlete’s poor performance on the stand doesn’t automatically make him guilty of murder.

She then began to explain her interpretation of the evidence presented and address each charge he faces, ruling out murder convictions for the athlete but stopping short of reading her judgement on a lesser homicide charge similar to manslaughter. That process will continue on Friday, when it’s expected that the judge will pronounce a formal verdict for each charge.

But Pistorius doesn’t have to wait to know he’s defeated, perhaps ruined, even if he’s cleared of all charges. Once an international star named the “sexiest” man in South Africa, sought out for endorsements, he is now, in some respects, his country’s O.J. Simpson.

Once the judge’s final verdict is in, Pistorius will have a chance to start an appeals process to the South Africa Supreme Court of Appeal, and ultimately to the country’s Constitutional Court, which could take years. The state will also have an opportunity to appeal if it believes the judge was mistaken in her interpretation of the law, as ABC explained.

According to the prosecution, Pistorius argued with Steenkamp that night in his home in a gated community in Pretoria. Things got out of hand. She retreated to the bathroom. He fired four shots from his 9mm pistol through the door and killed her. Prosecutors portrayed him as temper-prone, self-absorbed, gun-obsessed egotist who lived life altogether too recklessly. During the trial, he sobbed constantly and vomited as the prosecutor kept describing the bloody details of what happened that night — not the stuff of sports legends.

His own lawyer made him seem even more pathetic — not an iron man, but an anxiety-ridden mess, filled with demons dating back to childhood. Barry Roux described Pistorius as an impulsive, fearful man, terrified of small noises — like a noise in the bathroom — because of an “exaggerated flight response” stemming from the “slow-burning” effect of his disability. All his life — his family had his legs amputated before his first birthday because he was born without fibulas — he was unable to run away from danger, his lawyer said during closing arguments.

As Pistorius and Roux told it, the “Blade Runner” heard noises in the night coming from the bathroom as Steenkamp lay in the bed. Feeling helpless without his prosthetics, he reached for a 9mm pistol under his bed and fired four shots through the bathroom door.  When he realized it was Steenkamp in the bathroom and saw the blood and her body, he screamed in horror — a “blood-curdling” scream, as one witness said — so loud it echoed across the neighborhood.

The prosecution sought to punch holes in Pistorius’s story. Pistorius claimed he screamed, but some neighbors said they heard a woman scream. That was Steenkamp, prosecutors argued. If he was on stumps — close to the floor, rather than attached to his blades — why did ballistics experts determine the bullets were fired downward from above, they asked.

Pistorius said Steenkamp was in bed when he was awakened rather than, say, in the bathroom. Since he had to retrieve his gun from under the bed, how could he have not noticed that she was no longer there, the prosecution asked.

The defense said Pistorius acted in terror and in haste, almost reflexively getting his gun and pulling the trigger.

How could that be, asked prosecutor Gerrie Nel. Look at the steps Pistorius took, Nel said. He found his gun, unholstered it, walked 16 feet, disengaged the safety mechanism and fired. “That, my lady, is pre-planning,” Nel told the judge.

No trial since that of O.J. Simpson’s 20 years ago drew so much global attention. It was reported live and in thousands of live blogs on six continents, every move interpreted and debated. Like the O.J. Simpson story, it exposed not just the lifestyle of a celebrity — the wealth, the beautiful woman, the big house, the flaws, the violence — but made him and his trial a symbol of all things bad.

It was a study in contrast between the man in a wealthy gated community and the poverty of South Africa’s townships. It highlighted the fear of the poor among the rich, fear of crime, racial tension, violence against women, gun violence, the privileges of a wealthy white defendant, and the priorities of the news media and the public.

“What does it say about us,” said a Guardian writer, “when the Paralympian’s trial for murder attracts more media attention than Mandela’s funeral?”

[This story has been updated multiple times.]