Posted Friday, Feb. 22, 2013, at 9:41 AM
Photo by Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
After four days of proceedings that saw the prosecution stumble as it made its case that Oscar Pistorius deliberately shot and killed his girlfriend in the early morning hours of Valentine's Day, South African Magistrate Desmond Nair granted the Olympian bail today, ruling that he did not pose an adequate flight risk to justify keeping him behind bars until his trial gets underway later this year.
Under South African law, people charged with premeditated murder are automatically denied bail, unless the accused convinces the court that "exceptional circumstances exist which in the interests of justice permit his or her release." Given that, today's decision is somewhat surprising, although Nair had hinted over the last several days that he considered Pistorius, who underwent double amputation as an infant after being born without fibula bones, something of a special case. "What kind of life would he lead, a person who has to use prostheses, if he has to flee?" Nair asked the defense today. (To which the lead prosecutor replied: "A life not in prison.")
Bail was set at 1 million rand (or about $113,000) and Pistorius was ordered to surrender all of his firearms and his passport, and avoid airports and witnesses.
One of the main reasons that bail was granted, the judge said, was because Pistorius laid out his version of events in a detailed affidavit read to the court at the start of this week's proceedings, something that he did not need to do during the preliminary hearing. "That reaching out in the affidavit, the way that he did, placing it before the court," Nair said. "I come to the conclusion that the accused has made a case to be released on bail."
Nair stressed that his decision to release Pistorius was not a judgment on his guilt or innocence, but instead about what would be gained about keeping the South African track star in jail while he awaits trial. Nonetheless, Nair made it clear that he was somewhat unimpressed with the prosecution's case as presented this week. In particular, the magistrate took issue with the actions and testimony of detective Hilton Botha, who served as the state's lead investigator until he was taken off the case yesterday after it emerged that he faces his own attempted murder charges in an unrelated case from 2011.
Botha, the judge said, made "several errors" during his testimony and "blundered" in gathering evidence. Nair added that the prosecution's case for a premeditated murder charge—which he noted relies on "nothing more than circumstantial evidence"—was not so "strong and watertight" that Pistorius "must come to the conclusion that he has to flee." Still, Nair did note that there were "improbabilities that need to be explored” in the Paralympic super star's story of how he came to shoot his girlfriend after mistaking her for a burglar.
A premeditated murder in South African carries a mandatory life sentence (with the possibility of parole). "I am not saying the planning of the murder of Reeva Steenkamp happened weeks ahead, days ahead," prosecutor Gerrie Nel told the court during his closing argument this morning. "I am saying the planning to kill Reeva Steenkamp happened that night."
Pistorius's next court appearance is set for June 4.
This post was updated with additional analysis and information as it became available.