BLOEMFONTEIN • South Africa's "Blade Runner" Oscar Pistorius was found guilty yesterday of murdering his girlfriend, in an appeals court ruling that could see him sent back to prison for up to 15 years.
The Supreme Court upgraded the 29-year-old Paralympian's sentence on appeal to murder from culpable homicide, for which he had received a five-year sentence.
Pistorius was released on parole on Oct 19, having spent one day less than a year in prison for shooting dead model Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine's Day in 2013. He was meant to serve the rest of his sentence under house arrest.
"Guilty of murder, with the accused having criminal intent," Judge Eric Leach told the court in South Africa's judicial capital Bloemfontein in a dramatic legal reversal. "The matter is referred back to the trial court to consider an appropriate sentence.
"It is inconceivable that a rational person thought he was entitled to fire at this person with a heavy-duty firearm," said Judge Leach, who described Pistorius' testimony as "vacillating and untruthful".
Prosecutors had appealed against the original ruling, saying that Pistorius should be convicted of murder for firing four shots through a locked toilet door. The case has attracted worldwide interest and continues to fascinate and divide South Africa.
State prosecutors say Pistorius intended to kill Ms Steenkamp and that she fled to the toilet during a row. Pistorius denies deliberately killing Ms Steenkamp, saying he mistook her for an intruder at his home.
The case has prompted a fierce debate in a country beset by high levels of violent crime. Some rights groups say the track star received preferential treatment.
At the original trial last year, Judge Thokozile Masipa ruled that the state had failed to prove intent or "dolus eventualis", a legal concept that in the case refers to whether a person foresees the possibility that his or her action will cause death, but carries on regardless.
Some legal experts were worried that the verdict by Judge Masipa could have set a bad legal precedent in a country with one of the highest crime rates in the world.
Pistorius, whose lower legs were amputated when he was a baby but who went on to become a global sporting hero, was not at the court session in Bloemfontein, some 400km south-west of Johannesburg. Ms Anneliese Burgess, the Pistorius family's spokesman, said the family would wait for the lawyers' advice on what to do next.
The athlete has been living with his uncle in a wealthy suburb in the capital Pretoria since being freed on parole.
Ms Steenkamp's mother June, who has said she does not want retribution, attended the court session. She shed tears as she left the court after the new judgment was handed down.
Mr Barry Steenkamp, Reeva's father, welcomed the new verdict. "It's a big relief. I feel it's a fair decision that the judge gave," Mr Steenkamp said in a brief interview on local television station ANN7, before breaking down in tears.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE