PRETORIA, South Africa — As Oscar Pistorius’ lawyer put it Friday, the murder trial of the double-amputee athlete comes down to a sliver of time — the seconds before he fired four gunshots through a closed toilet door and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
The world will have to wait another month to hear a verdict in a globally televised five-month trial whose blend of shock and celebrity, framed by the rise and fall of a role model-turned-murder suspect, has transfixed people far beyond South Africa’s borders.
Judge Thokozile Masipa said at the end of two days of final arguments that she will give a verdict on Sept. 11, signaling the approaching end of a trial that has had several delays, including one break for an evaluation of Pistorius’ state of mind. Earlier, in monologues that lasted for hours, chief lawyers for both sides gave their clashing versions of what happened at the Olympic runner’s Pretoria home in the early hours of Valentine’s Day last year.
Pistorius has said he mistakenly shot Steenkamp through the closed door of a toilet cubicle, thinking there was an intruder in his home. The prosecution alleges the athlete intentionally killed her after an argument.
After the court adjourned, a rare message appeared on the once-active Twitter account of Pistorius, who last tweeted in July after an altercation with another man at a nightclub last month that his own family acknowledged was the result of poor judgment on his part. Friday’s message read:
“Thank you to my loved ones and those that have been there for me, who have picked me up and helped me through everything.”
Pistorius, who has been free on bail, sat calmly on a bench Friday behind his lawyer. He wore glasses, mostly looking straight ahead.
Masipa will decide with the help of two legal assistants whether Pistorius, 27, is guilty of premeditated murder, for which he could face 25 years to life in prison if convicted. He could also be convicted of a lesser murder charge or negligent killing, both of which call for years in jail. The judge could acquit him if she believes he made a tragic error.
South Africa does not have a jury system. Nor does it have the death penalty.
“It comes down to that split second, that one minute or 20 seconds, I don’t know how long it was, or 30 seconds in the accused’s life where he was standing at the entrance to the bathroom, firearm pointed at the door,” defense lawyer Barry Roux said. “That is what this case is all about.”
Roux argued the killing was an accident and said Pistorius’ disability had made him particularly vulnerable and anxious about crime over the years, comparing him to a victim of abuse who kills an abuser after a long period of suffering. Pistorius had his lower legs amputated as a baby, and Roux said that the athlete’s long-held fear of being attacked with the disability played a central role in the shooting on Feb. 14, 2013.
At one point Friday, Roux slammed his hand onto a desk in the Pretoria courtroom to mimic a sudden sound he says the disabled athlete heard during the fatal night, startling him and causing him to open fire.
“You’re anxious. You’re trained as an athlete to react … He stands now with his finger on the trigger ready to fire,” Roux said, describing the allegedly fearful mindset of Pistorius when he killed Steenkamp.
Pistorius pleaded not guilty to the main murder charge and also three separate firearm charges. Roux, however, conceded that he was guilty in one of those firearm charges, of negligently firing a gun in a public place in a restaurant weeks before he killed Steenkamp. Prosecutors have used those firearm charges to paint Pistorius as a hothead who was obsessed with guns, not the vulnerable figure described by his legal team.
Roux also alleged that items in Pistorius’ bedroom, near the bathroom where he killed Steenkamp, may have been moved around by investigating officers, repeating the defense’s allegation that police tampered with evidence, albeit unintentionally.
The positioning of bedroom items, including a fan, a bedcover and a pair of Steenkamp’s jeans, are important because, in police photographs, they were not in the places where Pistorius said they were before the shooting. Prosecutors have used this to argue Pistorius is lying to hide a murder.
Chief prosecutor Gerrie Nel has urged the judge to dismiss Pistorius’ story as a set of lies.
In final arguments Thursday, Nel accused the once-celebrated Paralympic champion of being an “appalling witness” who was constantly “deceitful” during his testimony to try to cover up a murder after a quarrel with Steenkamp.
On Friday, Nel gave a brief rebuttal to the defense’ final remarks.
“The accused intended to kill a human being,” he said. “There must be consequences.”