“Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius sat weeping in the dock Thursday as a judge began handing down the verdict over the Valentine’s Day killing of the star Paralympian’s model lover.
Grimacing and sniffling, the 27-year-old celebrity sprinter watched as Judge Thokozile Masipa called Pretoria’s High Court to order and began reading her verdict, which is expected to be delivered over two days.
If found guilty of deliberately killing girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in the early hours of Valentine’s Day 2013, he faces a life in South Africa’s infamously tough prisons and notoriety that would eclipse his Olympic-sized sporting achievements.
Masipa began proceedings with a detailed description of the weighty charges against Pistorius: one count of murder and three firearms offences.
She stated the undisputed facts of the case — Pistorius killed the law graduate and model when he fired four shots through a locked toilet door in his upmarket Pretoria home.
The sprinter doesn’t deny this, but says he thought he was shooting at an intruder while Steenkamp was safely in bed.
The prosecution says he killed her in a fit of rage after an argument.
Masipa will go over the pros and cons of evidence from almost 40 witnesses, including Pistorius himself.
A final verdict could come on Friday, with sentencing expected weeks later.
Entering court Pistorius passed through a tunnel of cameras, as dozens of police officers cordoned off the area around the court.
The verdict is the climax of a six-month murder trial that has cast a harsh spotlight on the fallen hero’s private life.
The high-drama trial has fed intense media interest worldwide, with live broadcasts veering into the realm of TV reality shows.
During proceedings Pistorius has broken down, weeping and at times vomiting as he heard how the 29-year-old blonde’s head “exploded” like a watermelon under the impact of his hollow-point bullets.
On Thursday a man selling papers on a nearby street corner said he couldn’t keep up with the demand: “Maybe you can come later,” said Thomas Mdlule, the 29-year-old vendor, rushing to count out change for his customers.
Inside the court Pistorius’s supportive sister and the implacable mother of the woman he killed looked on from the packed public gallery.
June Steenkamp arrived to the courtroom early on Thursday, accepting a hug from a supporter wearing a “Imprison for Reeva” paper pinned to her shirt.
– The verdict –
Prosecutors have described the double amputee as an egotistical liar obsessed with guns, fast cars and beautiful women, who refused to take responsibility for his actions.
The court heard transcripts of phone messages in which the pair argued, Steenkamp texting: “I’m scared of you sometimes, of how you snap at me.”
Defence lawyers sought to explain there are “two Oscars”: a world-class athlete and a highly vulnerable individual with a serious disability who acted out of fear, not anger, when he fired the fatal shots.
But unlike the legendary live-television trial 20 years ago of US football hero OJ Simpson, who was controversially acquitted by a jury, Masipa has been assisted by two assessors.
Masipa may decide that Pistorius is innocent, or that the state has not done enough to prove its case, resulting in an acquittal.
But if she decides Pistorius deliberately murdered Steenkamp, he could face a life sentence, which in South Africa means 25 years in jail.
Masipa could also decide that Pistorius did not kill her intentionally, but did act recklessly, opening the door to a lesser charge of culpable homicide, which could still carry a prison term.
Any guilty verdict is unlikely to be the end of the case.
There will be more courtroom arguments before a sentence is handed down and, most likely, an appeal to a higher court.
“The trial is the first leg of a multi-legged legal process. It’s just the beginning,” said lawyer David Dadic.
Whatever happens, Pistorius’s glittering sporting career is likely to be over.
Once a poster boy for disabled sport, he has been stripped of lucrative endorsement deals by global brands and has withdrawn from all competition.
For South Africans, the country’s justice system is on trial as much as Pistorius.
Many suspect that 20 years after apartheid the system is still rigged in favour of whites, and an increasingly rich black elite.
“If Pistorius is not found guilty, it’s a sad day for South Africa,” said Khoza, a man passing by the court wearing a dark velvet blazer and pinstriped trousers.
“If he is not guilty on this, it’s because he is a very powerful guy,” said Khoza, “there will be no justice.”