By Richard Greene and Faith Karimi
PRETORIA, South Africa (CNN – Sept. 20, 2014) — Oscar Pistorius cannot be found guilty of intentionally killing Reeva Steenkamp, the judge in his trial said Thursday. The judge has not issued a verdict, and the proceedings continue. Pistorius faces other possible verdicts, including culpable homicide.
Under South African law, Pistorius will not be found guilty of “murder.”
Pistorius could not have foreseen that the person he was shooting at, who was behind the bathroom door, would die, and therefore the state has not proven an intent to kill, Judge Thokozile Masipa said.
She also said evidence suggests that Pistorius genuinely believed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp was still in the bedroom, and that the person in the bathroom was an intruder, although that is irrelevant to the case, she said.
Pistorius’ trial started six months ago, transfixing the world with graphic details of how he fatally shot Steenkamp.
Before she rejected the premeditated murder charge, Judge Thokozile Masipa questioned why he fired “not one … but four shots” into the bathroom before he went to find his girlfriend.
However, she said, the intention to shoot does not necessarily mean the intent to kill.
“Court is satisfied that at the relevant time, the accused could distinguish between right and wrong” and act accordingly, she said.
Shorly before, Masipa cast doubt on witness testimony, and said she believes media coverage contaminated testimonies. She doubted state witnesses, saying they were in and out of sleep the night of the killing on Valentine’s Day last year.
“Technology is more reliable than human perception and human memory,” she said.
She described the victim’s wound as “immediately incapacitating,” and said she believed a scream heard by witnesses the night of the killing was Pistorius,’ not Steenkamp’s.
The judge appeared to be accepting the defense timeline of events that the shots came first, then screaming that must have been Pistorius.
She knocked down some aspects of the state’s case: the fact that Steenkamp took her phone and locked herself in the bathroom allegedly out of fear for her safety, phone messages between the couple that showed some rocky patches, and her stomach contents.
Steenkamp’s parents, Barry and June Steenkamp, sat expressionless a few rows behind the man on trial for killing their daughter. Her father bowed his head as he heard about his daughter’s fatal wounds.
Pistorius’ uncle, sister and brother also attended the hearing in the packed courtroom — the latter in a wheel chair from a car accident.
The verdict will cap a dramatic trial that started in March, and featured months of gory details that have seen Pistorius gag, vomit and break down in heaving sobs.
He fatally shot his law graduate girlfriend on Valentine’s Day last year at his home in South Africa.
Prosecutors charged him with premeditated murder, but he maintains he mistook her for an intruder when he fired four shots through a locked bathroom door.
South Africa does not have jury trials, and Masipa must decide: Did he intentionally kill Steenkamp? Was it murder?
In addition to the murder charge, Pistorius faces three other weapons charges.
Of the additional three charges, the most serious one is related to ammunition found in his house when police searched it after the killing.
He did not have a proper license for it, but he maintains he was storing it in his safe for his father.
If he is found guilty of the ammunition charge, he could face up to 15 years in prison, though the judge could opt for a lesser punishment such as a fine or the loss of his gun license.
Two other charges are related to allegations that he recklessly fired a gun in public — once in a restaurant in 2012, and again out of the sunroof of a car last year. Pistorius denies both.
The maximum penalty for each charge is five years behind bars. If he is convicted of either, he could face a lesser sentence, such as a fine or the loss of his gun license.
If the judge finds him guilty of murder, she must then decide if it’s premeditated. A minimum sentence for premeditated murder is life. A minimum sentence for murder with no previous convictions is 15 years.
Pistorius argues he made a mistake and was trying to defend himself from an intruder. If Masipa accepts that as plausible, she will then have to decide if his mistake and his actions were reasonable.
If she says they were not, she’ll find him guilty of a crime called culpable homicide. There is no minimum sentence for culpable homicide in South African law — it’s up to the judge to decide.
And there’s one final possibility.
If the judge does not think the prosecution has proved its case, she will find him not guilty, and Pistorius will be a free man.
Masipa will make her decision with the assistance of two experts known as assessors.
CNN’s Richard Greene reported from Pretoria, and Faith Karimi wrote and reported from Atlanta. CNN’s Emily Smith contributed to this report.