A South African judge said Thursday that Oscar Pistorius acted negligently when he shot and killed his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day last year, opening the door to a manslaughter conviction for an Olympic athlete famed for his carbon fiber running blades.
Speaking to a packed courtroom, Judge Thokozile Masipa had earlier in the day ruled out a murder conviction for Mr. Pistorius. As Mr. Pistorius wept, the judge said prosecutors hadn’t proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the disabled runner had intended to kill his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day last year, and therefore, fell short of the premeditated murder conviction that they sought.
“There just aren’t enough facts to support such a finding,” Ms. Masipa said.
However, the judge concluded that Mr. Pistorius was wrong to fire four shots in rapid succession through his locked bathroom door—even if he believed there was an intruder inside and not his 29-year-old girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp.
“I am of the view that the accused acted too hastily and used excessive force,” the judge said. “It is clear that his conduct was negligent.”
Ms. Masipa then abruptly adjourned her reading of a decision until Friday. That decision capped a dramatic day, but left open the precise verdict that she will reach and the sentence it might carry.
A charge of “culpable homicide,” or manslaughter, carries a wide range of possible sentences in South Africa, from a fine to 15 years in prison. Mr. Pistorius also faces three weapons charges that the judge didn’t address in detail Thursday.
Judge Masipa had spent the morning hours Thursday delivering an appraisal of the facts and findings of the case, but stopped short of announcing a formal verdict. Instead she offered a winding explanation of why she was inclined to dismiss the charge of premeditated murder but embrace a lesser manslaughter charge, the latest twist in a trial that has been repeatedly interrupted by procedural stops and starts since it began in March.
Since it began in March, South Africans have followed the trial obsessively on a dedicated cable television channel and endlessly debated Mr. Pistorius’s possible mind-set and motive at their offices and dinner tables.
The trial has also captivated a vast audience abroad. Journalists tweeted and transcribed every moment of proceedings that traced Mr. Pistorius’s transformation from a fearless competitor to a shaky witness in his own murder trial, who claimed a lifetime of insecuritybred by his disability clouded his judgment as he confronted an unseen intruder the night the 29-year-old Ms. Steenkamp was killed.
“The accused isn’t unique in this respect. women, children the elderly and all those with limited mobility would fall under the same category,” Ms. Masipa said Thursday, one of several admonishments she delivered to Mr. Pistorius, backing up her reputation as a judge tough on men who harm their partners.
“Would it be reasonable if without further ado they armed themselves with firearms? I don’t think so,” she said.
She also said his “evasive” testimony had made him “a very poor witness” at his own trial.
Mr. Pistorius’ demeanor vacillated during his months in the courtroom—and under the global spotlight. He mostly sat alone on a bench between his family and his legal team, listening intently and occasionally passing notes to his attorney.
He also vomited into a bucket when images of Ms. Steenkamp’s body were displayed in the wood-paneled courtroom, and he wept repeatedly during more than a week of testimony in April.
Ms. Masipa by comparison was a stoic presence at the head of the courtroom, saying little during weeks of testimony. South Africans praised her handling of a complicated and highly scrutinized trial that has turned old racial mores on its head, with aggressive white lawyers deferring to her instructions and calling her “my lady.”