PRETORIA (AFP) - "Blade Runner" Oscar Pistorius was found not guilty of murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Thursday, a shock decision that left the South African celebrity athlete sobbing with emotion in the dock.
The high-profile trial was adjourned until Friday when the 27-year-old Paralympian will hear whether he has been found guilty of culpable homicide, a lesser charge roughly equivalent to manslaughter.
"The state clearly has not proved beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of premeditated murder," Judge Thokozile Masipa told the High Court in Pretoria.
"Viewed in its totality the evidence failed to establish that the accused had the requisite intention to kill the deceased let alone with premeditation," she said.
The double amputee could still face anything from a suspended sentence to a lengthy prison stretch if found guilty of culpable homicide. Or he could be acquitted altogether.
Masipa's introductory comments on the lesser count appeared to lean towards a guilty ruling.
"I am of the view that the accused acted too hastily and used excessive force. In the circumstances, it is clear that his conduct was negligent," she said before adjourning the trial.
When he heard the judge clear him of murder, the Paralympian sprinter sat in the dock bowed and burying his head in his hands.
His sister Aimee rushed from the first row of the public gallery to hug her older brother, who was wiping tears from his eyes with a handkerchief.
The victim's parents, Barry and June Steenkamp, left the courtroom with stony faces.
When asked if this is good news for Pistorius, his Aunt Lois replied, "It's not the end you know, we're still listening." Legal experts voiced shock after he was found not guilty of murder, and predicted the case that has gripped South Africans for a year would not rest with the verdict.
Both defence and prosecution agree that Pistorius killed Steenkamp a law graduate and fashion model, when he fired four shots through a locked toilet door in his upmarket Pretoria home.
But the sprinter 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.
Judge Masipa moved quickly through her judgement, rejecting state evidence that pointed to an argument between the couple.
"Neither the evidence of the loving relationship or a relationship turned sour can assist this court to determine whether the accused had the requisite intention to kill the deceased," she said.
The judge also reviewed evidence by neighbours who testified to hearing shots and screams, saying many "had their facts wrong".
She said the huge media coverage of the case could have affected some witnesses.
"I am of the view that they failed to separate what they knew personally or what they heard from other people or what they gathered from the media," she said.
But Masipa also said Pistorius himself was "evasive" on the stand, and that his evidence showed "a number of defences, or apparent defences".
"The accused was a very poor witness," she said.
The verdict is the climax of a six-month murder trial that has cast a harsh spotlight on the fallen hero's private life.
Full of high drama, the trial has fed intense media interest worldwide, with live broadcasts veering into the realm of TV reality.
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.
Thursday's verdict, also broadcast live to audiences worldwide, 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.
"I'm shocked," Martin Hood, a Johannesburg-based criminal lawyer, said of Masipa's initial rulings. "I think she's going to get quite a lot of criticism from the judiciary and the legal system." "The consensus among the legal community was that he is guilty of murder. This could really open the door to systematic abuse of our legal system by people who shoot their partners and claim self-defence." 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.