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Pistorius Guilty of Manslaughter and Unlawful Discharge of a Firearm in Public

A gavel

Pistorius is guilty of culpable homicide.

Judge Masipa found Oscar Pistorius guilty of culpable homicide, which we call manslaughter, and guilty of unlawful discharge of a firearm in public for shooting a gun in a restaurant. She found him not guilty of unlawfully discharging a firearm through the sunroof of a vehicle and not guilty of unlawful possession of ammunition.

This case is more about the presumption of innocence and the absence of evidence, rather than the evidence that was presented at trial. When all is said and done, Pistorius fired 4 shots through a locked door into a toilet cubicle that was not much bigger than a stall in a public bathroom.
He testified that he believed that an intruder was in the cubicle and he fired his gun in self-defense believing he was in imminent danger of death or serious injury.

In other words, he admitted committing the acts that caused Reeva Steenkamp’s death. The disputed issues concerned his knowledge and intent.

Did he really believe an intruder was in the cubicle or did know she was in there?

Did he intend to kill the person when he fired the shots?

As Judge Masipa pointed out, there was no evidence that Pistorius had physically abused or threatened Steenkamp or any other woman in the past and there was no evidence that any serious problems existed in their relationship.

No direct evidence contradicted what he said about his knowledge and intent when he fired the shots, although the prosecutor caught him in many inconsistencies and lies during cross examination.

Even though he lied about other matters and his story about an intruder did not make any sense, Judge Masipa was unwilling to conclude that he knew she was in the cubicle and he intended to kill her when he fired the shots.

Notwithstanding his lame story and his strong motive to lie about the shooting, she concluded instead that the prosecution failed to overcome the presumption of innocence regarding his knowledge and intent by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

There is a legal presumption that a person intends the natural and probable consequences of his acts. However, this presumption cannot substitute for actual evidence and overcome the presumption of innocence.

Circumstantial evidence is a form of evidence that can be more powerful than direct evidence, depending on the circumstances.

Under South African law, however, a judge cannot base a verdict on circumstantial evidence alone unless no inference except guilt can reasonably be drawn from it.

Her conclusion makes sense when viewed through the prism of the legal rules that she applied. However, it makes no sense to be forced into accepting a liar’s statement about his knowledge and intent when it is contrary to common experience and he has a powerful motive to lie.

That’s the core weakness of her decision.

As I said yesterday,

Keep in mind that there is a difference between forming an opinion about what really happened and deciding whether the state overcame the presumption of innocence by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

That difference is a key to understanding this verdict.

Also key to understanding her verdict is the South African rule that a verdict may not be based on circumstantial evidence alone unless the evidence is inconsistent with any other conclusion.

That used to be the rule in most jurisdictions in the US but has gradually been rejected as a comment on the evidence, which is forbidden by most state constitutions.

Instead, most instructions tell the jury that evidence is either direct or circumstantial and one is not necessarily better or more reliable than the other. It’s up to the jury to decide how much weight to assign to the evidence.

I think he probably is looking at a total sentence for the two offenses of somewhere between 8-12 years.

Photo by Keith Burtis released under a Creative Commons license.

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Frederick Leatherman

Frederick Leatherman

I am a former law professor and felony criminal defense lawyer who practiced in state and federal courts for 30 years specializing in death penalty cases, forensics, and drug cases.

I taught criminal law, criminal procedure, law and forensics, and trial advocacy for three years after retiring from my law practice.

I also co-founded Innocence Project Northwest (IPNW) at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle and recruited 40 lawyers who agreed to work pro bono, assisted by law students, representing 17 innocent men and women wrongfully convicted of sexually abusing their children in the notorious Wenatchee Sex Ring witch-hunt prosecutions during the mid 90s. All 17 were freed from imprisonment.

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