South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal has overturned Oscar Pistorius’s conviction for culpable homicide — the equivalent of manslaughter — and found him guilty of the more serious crime of murder.
The former Olympian, known as “Blade Runner” for his artificial legs, will now have to go back to court for resentencing for the shooting death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day in 2013.
He could be returned to prison for at least 15 years. The decision followed the prosecution’s appeal of the lesser verdict against Pistorius after his long trial last year.
“We have taken note of the judgment that has just been handed down by the supreme court of appeal,” Pistorius’s family said in a statement. “The legal team will study the finding and we will be guided by them in terms of options going forward. We will not be commenting any further at this stage.” Pistorius was not present when the verdict was read.
Just weeks ago, it appeared that Pistorius was out of the woods. Paroled less than a year into a five-year sentence for what a South African court deemed culpable homicide, the 29-year-old Paralympic champion headed to house arrest at what appeared to be a comfortable Pretoria home. But the verdict throws a notorious figure who displaced O.J. Simpson in the pantheon of fallen celebrities in court back into the spotlight — again.
Pistorius shot Steenkamp through a bathroom door, claiming during his trial that he thought she was an intruder. The subsequent trial had everything the tabloids could love, as the court explained: “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.”
— Karyn Maughan (@karynmaughan) December 3, 2015
To this frothy mix, the Supreme Court has contributed a nuanced legal opinion.
“The issue before this court is whether in doing so he committed the crime of murder, the intentional killing of a human being, or the lesser offence of culpable homicide, the negligent killing of another,” the opinion read.
The case turned on a legal concept called “dolus eventualis”: “a form of intent (in South African Law) where the accused foresees the possibility of an unlawful result due to his conduct, but nonetheless persists in such conduct, reconciling himself or herself to the result in question,” as the South African TV network ENCA explained. Or, as the court itself put it: “‘gambling’ as it were with the life of the person against whom the act is directed.”
The court ruled that Pistorius did indeed possess such foresight — and so was guilty of murder.
“I have no doubt … the accused must have foreseen and therefore did foresee that whoever was behind that door might die,” Justice Eric Leach said, reading the opinion to the public.
First, the court took aim at Pistorius’s credibility.
“With ample justification, the court found the accused to have been ‘a very poor witness,'” the opinion read. “His version varied substantially. … In the light of these contradictions, one really does not know what his explanation is for having fired the fatal shots.”
— Karyn Maughan (@karynmaughan) December 3, 2015
The court also dismissed arguments that Pistorius’s disability — he was not wearing his prostheses when he killed Steenkamp — should be considered.
“He is a person well-trained in the use of firearms and was holding his weapon at the ready in order to shoot,” the decision read. “He paused at the entrance to the bathroom and when he became aware that there was a person in the toilet cubicle, he fired four shots through the door. And he never offered an acceptable explanation for having done so.”
And the high court said the lower court had not correctly applied dolus eventualis. Whether Reeva or an intruder was behind the door didn’t really matter.
“What was in issue, therefore, was not whether the accused had foreseen that Reeva might be in the cubicle when he fired the fatal shots at the toilet door but whether there was a person behind the door who might possibly be killed by his actions,” the opinion read. “The accused’s incorrect appreciation as to who was in the cubicle is not determinative of whether he had the requisite criminal intent. Consequently, by confining its assessment of dolus eventualis to whether the accused had foreseen that it was Reeva behind the door, the trial court misdirected itself as to the appropriate legal issue.”
The court also appeared to make an appeal to plain reason. Pistorius, it said, must do an appropriate amount of time for his actual crime — not another.
“The interests of justice require that persons should be convicted of the actual crimes they have committed, and not of lesser offences,” the opinion read. “That is particularly so in crimes of violence. It would be wrong to effectively think away the fact that an accused person is guilty of murder if he ought to have been convicted of that offence.”
At least one analyst took issue with the opinion.
“It is highly undesirable to sound the message to society that it is ever, in any way, excusable to kill an innocent person by shooting through a closed door,” Roche Steyn wrote at ENCA. “… It is also of course not expected of people under attack to be as cool-headed as 007 in assessing their own conduct in the situation.”