Judge frees Oscar Pistorius on bail as Steenkamp family watches
Oscar Pistorius ruled to be no threat to society and not a flight risk. South African judge sets bail at about $114,000. Sprinter's hands trembling early but Oscar Pistorius' face unmoved in bail decision.
(AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
Pretoria, South Africa
South African magistrate Desmond Nair drew cheers from Oscar Pistorius' family and supporters as the he ruled that the famous South African can move freely while awaiting trial for the shooting death of his girlfriend. Mr. Pistorius himself appeared unmoved as the decision was read out.
Earlier, the prosecution and defense in the hearings both closed their arguments.The prosecution vehemently opposed bail to Chief Magistrate Desmond Nair in a case that has transfixed South Africans and brought international media attention to the nation's justice system and police capabilities.
Pistorius is charged with one count of premeditated murder in the Feb. 14 killing of Reeva Steenkamp. He says he accidentally shot her, thinking she was a dangerous intruder inside his home, lurking in a toilet stall off his bedroom.
Pistorius' hands trembled as he said "good morning, your worship" as the session began in Magistrate's Court in Pretoria, South Africa's capital. For the first time in the hearing, two representatives of the Steenkamp family were present in court, sitting behind and to the left of Pistorius in the public gallery.
Prosecutor Gerrie Nel said Pistorius' version of the story, that he shot Ms. Steenkamp accidentally, was improbable, and argued that Pistorius did not need to plan the killing for days in advance for it to be premediated.
"He planned it that night when she [Steenkamp] locked herself in (the toilet)," Nel said in response to a question from the magistrate on why Pistorius hadn't staged a break-in at his home to make his story look more believable. "The fact that we have only one survivor of that tragic night is difficult for the state."
Pistorius' defense lawyer, Barry Roux, brought up culpable homicide as a possible charge for the first time in the case when answering questions from the magistrate.
"He did not want to kill Reeva. He had no intent to kill Reeva," Roux said as Pistorius began weeping again — like he has done for much of his bail hearing.
Roux said it was impossible for Pistorius, as famous as he is and with his prostheses, to escape South Africa before trial and bail should be granted.
"Let me tell you how difficult it is for this man to disappear from this world," Roux said.
Prosecutor Nel earlier countered that everyone, whether disabled or famous or otherwise different from the majority, should be treated equally under the law. Nel noted that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is famous but is now holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden to face sex-related charges.
Nair, the magistrate, will decide if Pistorius can be freed with conditions or if he is held until trial. Pistorius faces the sternest bail conditions in South Africa because of the seriousness of the murder charge, meaning his defense lawyers have to prove there is an "exceptional" reason for him to be freed.
Stephen Tuson, an adjunct law professor at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and a practicing attorney, told The Associated Press that poor health, a weak state case or a disability could be reasons to grant bail to a person accused of murder. But the "exceptional" circumstances Pistorius would have to prove to be freed are not established absolutely by law and are applied considering the individual merits of each case.
"(The matter of exceptional reasons) is not defined," Tuson said. "We've had to have this concept expanded by the courts on a case by case basis."
Pistorius' defense has dedicated much of its argument in the bail hearing to questioning the state's case against Pistorius and trying to discredit the police investigation into Steenkamp's shooting. Lead investigator Hilton Botha was removed from the case Thursday following his bungled testimony for the prosecution and replaced by the South African police's top detective, Vinesh Moonoo — who was in court Friday.
Defense lawyer Roux also stressed Pistorius' disability Friday and said it was one of the reasons why he couldn't easily flee the country.
"He cannot, cannot go unnoticed through airport security. When he goes through the security at the airport, there's every time a commotion because the system would react," Roux said. He added that Pistorius also needs medical treatment for his stumps and has to have his prostheses adjusted on a monthly basis.
In arguing against bail, Nel sought to portray Pistorius as a spoiled celebrity with an inflated sense of self who believed he was above the law. Nel also said selfishness could be driving expressions of remorse by suspects such as Pistorius.
"All that I feel sorry for is myself," Nel said of Pistorius. "I've shot her and my career is done."
Pistorius' longtime coach Ampie Louw had said before proceedings began that he is considering putting his runner back in training if he is granted bail to allow him to "get his mind kind of clear."
Louw said he realizes that the Olympic athlete might not be emotionally ready to give any thought to running.
"The change is that he is heartbroken, that is all," Louw said in the courtroom, surrounded by reporters and television cameras. "For me it is tough to see that. Not to be able to reach out and sit next to him and say 'Sorry, man, it was a terrible accident.' But I cannot do it, I must just sit here in court and that's all.
"The sooner he can start working the better," said Louw, who was the person who convinced the double amputee to take up track as a teenager a decade ago.
He has been held at a police station in Pretoria since last week, but suspects who are denied bail are typically held in a prison.
Roux argued on Thursday that the evidence backs Pistorius' statement that he shot through a toilet door at his home because he mistook Steenkamp for an intruder, killing her by accident.
"I think there will be a level of shock in this country if he is not released (on bail)," Roux said in court.
Opposing bail, Nel argued that Pistorius was too willing to shoot. The prosecution says Pistorius planned to kill his 29-year-old girlfriend, a model and budding reality TV star, after an argument in the early hours of Valentine's Day.
"The reason you fire four shots is to kill," Nel said.
Louw said he might put Pistorius — who overcame the amputation of his lower legs as a baby to compete at last year's London Olympics — back on a morning and afternoon training routine if he is freed, believing it might help him to be able to run track again.
"You must give him space," the coach said.
AP Sports Writer Gerald Imray contributed to this report from Johannesburg.