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Judge clears Pistorius of murder

Oscar Pistorius has been cleared of murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp - but he could still face a lengthy jail term if found guilty of her manslaughter.

The 27-year-old athlete broke down as j udge Thokozile Masipa said there was not enough evidence to support prosecution claims Pistorius intended to kill the law graduate-turned-model when he shot her at his home on Valentine's Day last year.

But the judge appeared to indicate he will be convicted of culpable homicide - the South African equivalent of the UK's manslaughter charge - when he returns to court tomorrow, describing Pistorius as being "negligent" in killing 29-year-old Ms Steenkamp.

She told the court in Pretoria that Pistorius acted "hastily" with "too much force" when he fired four bullets through his toilet door in the early hours of February 14, 2013.

Pistorius, dubbed Blade Runner due to his prosthetic limbs, has always admitted he shot Ms Steenkamp. But he told police he mistook his girlfriend for intruders.

But Pistorius was also described by the judge as a "very poor witness", who "lost his composure" during cross-examination.

Delivering her verdict this afternoon, judge Masipa criticised Pistorius' decision to reach for his 9mm pistol and fire it through the toilet cubicle in his Pretoria home rather than raise the alarm or fire a warning shot.

She said: " There were other means available to you to deal with threats to life.

"All the accused had to do was pick up his cell phone and ring security, or run to the balcony and call for help.

"Many people in this country have experienced crime or the effects thereof, directly or indirectly at some time or another.

"Many have been victims of violent crime but have not resorted to sleeping with firearms under their pillows.

"If the accused, for example, had awoken in the middle of the night and in darkness seen a silhouette by his bed and in a panic shot at that figure, only to find it was the deceased, his conduct would have been understandable and perhaps excusable.

"In such a situation he would not have been expected to call security first as he would be faced with a real emergency."

She added: "The accused had reasonable time to think, reflect and conduct himself.

"I'm not persuaded that a reasonable person with the same disability would have fired the four shots.

"The accused knew there was a person behind the toilet door, he chose to use a firearm.

"Would a reasonable person in the same circumstances as the accused have foreseen the possibility that if he fired four shots whoever was behind the toilet might be struck and die as a result?

"Would a reasonable person in the same circumstances as the accused have guarded against that possibility? The answer to both questions is yes.

"Did the accused fail to take steps which he should have reasonably taken to guard against the consequence? Again the answer is yes.

"I am of the view the accused acted too hastily and used too much force. It is clear his conduct is negligent."

Pistorius made no comment as he left the court. He will be braced to expect another media scrum when he returns to the building tomorrow.

In addition to the manslaughter charge, the Olympian will also face verdicts in three alleged firearms offences. Any conviction is likely to result in an adjournment for sentencing.

Earlier, judge Masipa said there was insufficient evidence to support the prosecution's claim that the decorated athlete intended to kill his girlfriend.

She said: "The state clearly has not provided beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of pre-meditated murder.

"There are just not enough facts to support such a finding."

It reduced Pistorius, backed in court by members of his family including his father Henke and brother Carl - the latter in a wheelchair following a recent car crash - to tears.

Delivering her verdict, the judge - determining the defendant's fate as South Africa does not have a jury system - said some witnesses had failed to separate their own evidence from details contained in press coverage, acknowledging the way the trial had been televised. It is seen as a landmark case in the South African judicial system.

The trial opened some six months ago with a witness describing how she heard "bloodcurdling screams" on the night of the shooting.

The prosecution, led by Gerrie Nel - nicknamed The Bulldog for his courtroom tenacity - sought to depict the star as having a short fuse and being obsessed with guns, calling a former girlfriend who told the trial that the defendant once shot his gun out of the sunroof of a car.

His defence team, headed by Barry Roux, presented a case that portrayed him as anxious about crime and claimed evidence at the scene was mishandled.

The verdict hearing is due to resume tomorrow morning.

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