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Pistorius family relieved as athlete cleared of murder

Masipa told the court that Pistorius couldn't be found guilty of either murder or premeditated murder.

FILE: An emotional Oscar Pistorius in the dock as judgment is handed down in his murder trial at the High Court in Pretoria on Thursday, 11 September 2014. Picture: Pool.

JOHANNESBURG - Oscar Pistorius's family showed visible signs of relief this afternoon when Judge Thokozile Masipa announced he would not be convicted of murder.

The decision has however also elicited confusion and anger and has raised eyebrows in Reeva Steenkamp's hometown of Port Elizabeth.

After six months of presiding over what many have dubbed 'the trial of the century', Masipa started handing down her verdict in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria today.

Only the second black woman to rise to the bench in South Africa, Masipa read out her verdict calmly and seemingly impervious to the global interest in a case that has drawn comparisons to the 1995 murder trial of American football star OJ Simpson.

Pistorius, the double amputee who became one of the biggest names in athletics, shot dead his model and law graduate girlfriend on Valentine's Day last year.

Since the news first broke on the morning of 14 February last year, the case has gripped millions around the world who saw Pistorius as the embodiment of triumph over adversity, a man whose lower legs were amputated as a baby but who reached the semi-finals of the 400 metres at the London Olympics in 2012.

Masipa told the court this afternoon that Pistorius could not be found guilty of either murder or premeditated murder.

"The state clearly has not proved beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of premeditated murder."

She explained that the intention to shoot does not indicate the intention to kill.

"The accused clearly wanted to use the firearm and the only way to use it was to shoot at the perceived danger. The intention to shoot however doesn't necessarily include the intention to kill."

She said the athlete could not have foreseen that he would kill the person behind the toilet door.

"How could the accused reasonably have foreseen that the shot he fired would kill the deceased?"

However, she did find he was negligent.

"I am of the view the accused acted too hastily and used excessive force. By consensus, it is clear that his conduct was negligent."

The judge postponed proceedings until 9:30 tomorrow morning.

PISTORIUS DESCRIBED AS POOR, EVASIVE WITNESS

Masipa described Pistorius as a poor and evasive witness who gave the court a plethora of defences while trying to prove his version of events.

She said the conduct of the accused could be explained by looking at his past. But that this did not excuse his conduct.

"Many people suffer from crime but not everyone sleeps with a firearm under their bed."

She said if the athlete woke and found someone over him and opened fire that would have been excusable conduct.

"I'm not persuaded that a reasonable person with the same circumstances would have shot into the cubicle. The accused knew there was a person behind the door, he chose to use his firearm."

She explained a number of people including women, children and the elderly feel vulnerable and are often subjected to crime.

While she accepted that he legitimately thought there was an intruder in his house, she said his vulnerability due to his disability cannot justify his actions.

DRAMATIC SCENES IN THE COURTROOM

As Masipa made her findings, Pistorius began to heave, his shoulders shaking.

He wiped away his tears with a handkerchief as the judge went on. Members of the Steenkamp and Myers families in the public gallery appeared somewhat stunned by the decision.

Barry Steenkamp looked downcast and Gina Myers dabbed at her eyes. During the recess that followed, Pistorius hunched down in the dock and his siblings huddled over him, their arms linked together as they prayed.

Attorney Brian Webber walked over and slapped his client twice on the arm, the relief evident on his face.

At the end of proceedings, Pistorius spent some time sitting in the corner of the empty courtroom, his sister on the arm of his chair stroking his head as he braced himself to walk the media gauntlet outside and face the world.

REACTION

There's been mixed reaction to today's proceedings.

Former High Court judge Willem Heath said Masipa has done well to restore confidence in South Africa's legal system.

But the ANC Women's League's Jackie Mofokeng disagreed.

Outside the court, many questioned Masipa's findings while others simply said they were relieved.

At the same time, Masipa's decision not to convict Pistorius of murder or premeditated murder has triggered shock and anger from locals in Port Elizabeth where Steenkamp grew up.

There appears to be a sombre and reserved mood among friends and acquaintances.

While some locals at the Steenkamp family's pub,The Barking Spider, refused to speak to the media, others didn't hold back after hearing that Pistorius was found not guilty of murder.

A man who knows the Steenkamp family said they have been under huge strain.

"I don't even want to think about it because it will break the family down so much."

Many residents said that despite today's judgment, they still believe Pistorius murdered his girlfriend.

One woman said the family must challenge the judgment.

The local community and close friends say they are united behind the Steenkamp family.

For more on the trial, click here, or visit the live Oscar Pistorius blog.

Additional reporting by Reuters.

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