But then, after laying out why Mr. Pistorius, 27, might instead be guilty of a lesser crime, culpable homicide, the judge abruptly stopped in the middle of her explanation and suspended court without declaring a verdict on that charge.
“We’ll have to stop here and resume tomorrow morning,” the judge, Thokozile Matilda Masipa, said, less than half an hour after the court had returned from its lunch break.
Tears streamed down Mr. Pistorius’s face as he listened to the verdict and he began sobbing.
Mr. Pistorius, who was born without fibulas and had his lower legs amputated as an infant, was a national hero and an international star for the way that he overcame his disability to compete against able-bodied runners as well as disabled ones. But the sheen has worn off since the death of Ms. Steenkamp on Feb. 14, 2013, and some people said on Thursday that he had gotten off too lightly.
“It sends a terrible message about how we tolerate crime in South Africa,” said Martin Hood, a prominent defense lawyer. “The message is that you can just kill someone and get away with it.”
Judge Masipa is expected to render her decision on the culpable homicide charge, as well as on three lesser firearms charges, when the court meets again on Friday. If he is found guilty of culpable homicide, Mr. Pistorius could face anything from no jail time to 15 years in prison. It is rare to receive a long prison term for culpable homicide, which is defined as killing through negligence rather than intent.
There are no jury trials in South Africa, so it has been left to the judge, with the help of two aides, to render the verdict on her own, and then to read it aloud in court — with a full explanation behind each decision.
Incomplete as it is, the verdict has so far provided an answer of sorts to the trickiest and hardest to pin down question in this complex case: What was in Mr. Pistorius’s mind when he rose from his bed in the early morning hours that Valentine’s Day, grabbed a pistol, and pumped four shots through his bathroom door? Did he genuinely think that intruders had broken into his house and were hiding in the bathroom?
That is indeed what he thought, according to the judge, however odd that story seemed. And beyond that, she said, the prosecution had failed to prove that Mr. Pistorius’s account was false.
“If there is any possibility of its being true, then he is entitled to an acquittal,” she said.
As she read her verdict, calmly and coolly taking up piece after piece of evidence, dismissing some, discounting others, offering practical interpretations of still more, Judge Masipa made it at times difficult to guess where she was headed. For instance, she said that Mr. Pistorius made a poor and evasive witness. But, she said, just because a witness is “untruthful, does not mean he is guilty.”
Taking up the charge of culpable homicide, which is comparable to involuntary manslaughter, Judge Masipa sounded far harsher toward Mr. Pistorius than she had before. She said he had failed what she called the reasonable man test — namely, whether he had behaved the way a reasonable person would have done under the same circumstances.
She acknowledged that his disability had left him feeling vulnerable. But she also said that millions of other people — women, children, the elderly, those with limited mobility — were also vulnerable. “Would it be reasonable if without further ado they armed themselves with a firearm when frightened by danger?” she asked. “I do not think so.”
She also acknowledged that Mr. Pistorius was particularly afraid of crime. Still no excuse, she said. “Many people in this country have experienced crime, but they have not resorted to sleeping with a firearm under their pillow,” she said.
Faced with a potential intruder, Mr. Pistorius did not have to fire a weapon, the judge said. “All the accused had to do was to pick up his cellphone and call security or the police.”
In rendering her verdict, Judge Masipa also dismissed out of hand large portions of the prosecution’s evidence, in particular the testimony of neighbors who, in conflicting accounts, said they had heard various sounds coming from Mr. Pistorius’s house on the fatal night — arguments, screams, shots.
And the judge said that evidence culled from WhatsApp text messages and meant to demonstrate that Mr. Pistorius and Ms. Steenkamp’s relationship was “on the rocks,” as the prosecution argued, or was loving and supportive, as the defense maintained, was completely irrelevant.
“None of this evidence, from the state or defense, proves anything,” she said. “Normal relationships are dynamic and unpredictable sometimes.”