Pretoria: A South African judge cleared Oscar Pistorius of premeditated murder on Thursday, saying prosecutors had failed to prove the Olympic and Paralympic track star explicitly intended to kill his girlfriend on Valentine`s Day last year.
Although she described the 27-year-old as a "very poor" and "evasive" witness, judge Thokozile Masipa said this did not mean the track star was necessary guilty in a case that she said was based entirely on circumstantial evidence.
"The state has not proved beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of premeditated murder," Masipa told the Pretoria High Court. "There are just not enough facts to support such a finding."
The decision will be a relief to Pistorius, who would have faced a mandatory life sentence - effectively 25 years before parole - but he could still be convicted of a lesser murder charge, or culpable homicide, both of which could carry lengthy jail terms.
As the 66-year-old Masipa began her methodical review of the 41-day trial and the charges - murder and three lesser, unrelated firearms offences - a pained and forlorn Pistorius bowed his head in the dock, tears welling up in his eyes.
Masipa, only the second black woman to rise to the bench in South Africa, has remained impassive throughout the often dramatic and gruesome court proceedings, seemingly impervious to the global interest in a case that has drawn comparisons to the 1995 murder trial of American football star OJ Simpson.
In one early blow to Pistorius, Masipa said defence allegations of police contamination of the crime scene "paled into insignificance".
However, as she drew up a detailed timeline of the shooting of model Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine`s Day last year, she questioned the reliability of state witnesses, including that of a neighbour who testified to hearing screams of a woman.
She also rejected a mass of instant messaging evidence presented by both prosecution and defence to suggest, respectively, that the couple`s relationship was on the rocks or loving and strong.
"Normal relationships are dynamic and unpredictable most of the time, while human beings are fickle," she said. "None of the evidence of a loving relationship, or a relationship turned sour, can assist this court."
She then turned to crux of the case - the precise moment Pistorius fired into the door - analysing what she termed the "number of defences or apparent defences" presented by the 27-year-old for evidence of his intent to kill.
She said there was inconsistency about Pistorius`s account of what was going through his mind when he pulled the trigger.