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Sobbing Pistorius cleared of murder of girlfriend

| Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014, 8:15 p.m.

JOHANNESBURG — A judge ruled on Thursday that South African athlete Oscar Pistorius was not guilty of premeditated murder in the shooting death of his girlfriend. But the judge found him “negligent,” raising the prospect of a manslaughter conviction.

Judge Thokozile Masipa read a lengthy explanation of the evidence and charges, then recessed the court until Friday without rendering a final verdict.

She told the court that she found Pistorius “acted too hastily and used excessive force” when he fired four times into the door of a toilet stall in his apartment, killing Reeva Steenkamp, 29.

“It is clear that his conduct was negligent,” she said.

The Olympic and Paralympic athlete, known as the Blade Runner for his use of specially designed prosthetic legs, was on trial for the shooting death of Steenkamp on Valentine's Day in 2013.

Prosecutors accused Pistorius of intentionally killing her by firing through the door of the stall where, they alleged, she had taken refuge from an argument.

Pistorius claimed he thought Steenkamp was in bed and that he accidentally shot her through the bathroom door, mistakenly believing there was an intruder in his home.

The judge had said state prosecutors failed to prove that Pistorius, 27, is guilty of either premeditated murder or second-degree murder, thus ruling out those charges.

Seated in the dock, Pistorius frequently sobbed and held his head in his hands as the judge ruled on the most serious charges.

There was a lunch break, then the judge criticized Pistorius for his conduct on the night of the killing.

A reasonable person, she said, “would have foreseen if he fired shots at the door, the person inside the toilet might be struck and die as a result.”

If he had felt threatened by an intruder, the judge said, “all the accused had to do was to pick up his cellphone to call security or the police. He could have run to the balcony and screamed in the same way he had screamed after the incident.”

Pistorius, she said, “had reasonable time to reflect, to think and to conduct himself reasonably.”

The defendant faces a verdict on two charges relating to the discharge of a firearm in a public place and one charge of illegal possession of ammunition. Masipa, not a jury, decided the verdict in line with South African legal custom.

If Pistorius had been found guilty of premeditated murder, he could have received 25 years in prison. A conviction of culpable homicide, the term for manslaughter in South Africa, carries a maximum 15-year prison sentence.

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