Legal experts shocked at Pistorius ruling

Pistorius fired four shots into a toilet cubicle killing Ms Reeva Steenkamp (both seen here in a 2012 photo). Judge Masipa (below) described Pistorius' conduct as "negligent".
Pistorius fired four shots into a toilet cubicle killing Ms Reeva Steenkamp (both seen here in a 2012 photo). Judge Masipa (below) described Pistorius' conduct as "negligent".PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
Pistorius fired four shots into a toilet cubicle killing Ms Reeva Steenkamp (both seen here in a 2012 photo). Judge Masipa (below) described Pistorius' conduct as "negligent".
Pistorius fired four shots into a toilet cubicle killing Ms Reeva Steenkamp (both seen here in a 2012 photo). Judge Masipa (below) described Pistorius' conduct as "negligent".PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

They say judge too lenient, verdict opens door to abuse of system

JOHANNESBURG - Lawyers and legal academics in South Africa voiced shock after Oscar Pistorius was cleared of murder charges, with critics saying Judge Thokozile Masipa had been too lenient.

"I'm shocked," said criminal lawyer Martin Hood, after Judge Masipa said in her verdict yesterday that the prosecution had not made the case for murder or premeditated murder during the disabled sporting icon's high-profile trial.

"I think she's going to get quite a lot of criticism from the judiciary and the legal system," said Mr Hood, a Johannesburg lawyer. "The consensus is that she hasn't got it right."

Pistorius fired four shots into a toilet cubicle killing his model girlfriend, Ms Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine's Day last year.

He said he had mistaken her for an intruder.

"The consensus among the legal community was that he is guilty of murder," said Mr Hood. "This could really open the door to systematic abuse of our legal system by people who shoot their partners and claim self-defence.

"If someone can shoot in an irresponsible manner, and even in a negligent manner and not be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law, then it means that we are not able to use the law as a tool to address violent crime in this country."

Another Johannesburg lawyer David Dadic said he and other legal professionals "are quite stunned by the decision... that the death behind the door, irrespective of who the victim was, was not foreseeable".

The 27-year-old double-amputee could yet be convicted on a lesser charge of culpable homicide, or the negligent killing of Ms Steenkamp, who was 29.

"I think at the very, very least she has to convict him of culpable homicide because Pistorius said it was an accident," said Mr Hood.

Judge Masipa concluded that "in the circumstances, it is clear his conduct is negligent". But it is unclear what kind of a sentence he could be given, as culpable homicide - a charge roughly equivalent to manslaughter - has no prescribed punishment under South African law.

She also said Pistorius 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.

Professor James Grant, a criminal law expert at Wits University in Johannesburg, noted the state could appeal if it believed there has been a legal error.

"Masipa doesn't accept that accused intended to kill anyone. Huh? His defence was he didn't intend to unlawfully kill," he tweeted. How can you voluntarily fire four shots into a toilet cubicle and not foresee the possibility of killing whoever was in there," wrote Prof Grant.

Lawyers also expect that Pistorius will be convicted of separate charges of gun and ammunition possession, for which he may be jailed, lose his gun licence or have a fine imposed.

"Again there is no prescriptive thinking; it's essentially how the judge feels subjectively and objectively, whether the crime is of such a serious nature or not," said Mr Dadic.

"So it's 'how long is a piece of string' really."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE