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Sep 12, 2:15 PM EDT

Oscar Pistorius convicted of culpable homicide


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PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) -- A judge convicted Oscar Pistorius of culpable homicide Friday in the death of his girlfriend, ruling that the former track star was negligent when he opened fire in his home after hearing what he said sounded like an intruder in a bathroom in the middle of the night.

The judge acquitted Pistorius of a more serious murder charge, a day after saying that the onetime Olympian could have called security guards or screamed for help on the balcony instead of grabbing his handgun and blasting multiple rounds through the door of a toilet stall.

Under South African law, culpable homicide is the illegal killing of someone through irresponsible behavior. The charge is comparable to reckless homicide or manslaughter.

"The conduct of the accused after the incident is inconsistent" with someone who had just committed murder, Judge Thokozile Masipa said, referring to Pistorius' telephone calls for help after he shot Reeva Steenkamp and his apparent distress as he cried and prayed over her body.

The runner's conviction on the lesser charge troubled some people who said the law goes too easy on deep-pocketed defendants such as Pistorius, who hired a high-powered legal team.

"People think he got away with murder," said Veronica Nyathi, a Johannesburg resident. "Most people want to see him go to jail. If he was poor, he would definitely be in jail. But if you are rich, your life can go on as normal."

Pistorius showed no emotion as he stood in a dark suit with his hands crossed in front of him for the judgment. After the verdict, the double-amputee who rose to fame running on carbon-fiber blades, was hugged by relatives. The judge then ordered a recess and extended his bail.

The verdict capped months of testimony in a trial that was followed around the world and had been seen as a showcase for the justice system in South Africa a generation after the end of white racist rule.

The next step in the sensational case comes at an Oct. 13 sentencing hearing, when the defense and the prosecution call witnesses to try to influence the judge's decision on whether, or for how long, Pistorius should go to prison.

The sentence for a culpable homicide conviction is at the judge's discretion and can range from a suspended sentence and a fine to as much as 15 years in prison. Legal experts have cited five years as a guideline.

South Africa does not have a jury system. Masipa, 66, reached the verdict with the help of two assistants. One of South Africa's first black female judges, she is regarded by some as a symbol of the country's transformation since 1994, deciding a case in which the accused, as well as the chief defense lawyer and prosecutor, are all white men.

Masipa said Pistorius could not be convicted of premeditated murder or a lesser murder charge because prosecutors did not prove that he knew Steenkamp was behind the locked toilet door when he shot through it in the predawn hours of Valentine's Day last year.

Pistorius said he mistook Steenkamp for an intruder. The prosecution said he killed her intentionally after an argument. The 29-year-old model had been seeing him for only a few months.

Some legal analysts agreed there was a strong case for conviction on the lesser charge because Pistorius knew that someone - in his version, an intruder - was behind the toilet door when he fired.

"The verdict is shocking to say the least," said Leonard Gray in Port Elizabeth, Steenkamp's hometown. "I feel sorry for Reeva Steenkamp's family because they're not going to get any closure."

However, Shrina Padayachy, also in Port Elizabeth, called the judge's verdict "fair and just because it's the prosecution that must prove beyond a reasonable doubt."

Pistorius' uncle, Arnold Pistorius, said there were no winners in the case, but his family was relieved.

"It's a big burden off us, off our shoulders," he said. "We always knew the facts of the matter, and we never had any doubt in Oscar's version of this tragic incident."

Disappointed prosecutors said they would decide whether to appeal only after sentencing.

The judge convicted the 27-year-old athlete of illegally firing a gun in a public place when a friend's pistol he was handling went off in a Johannesburg restaurant in early 2013, weeks before Steenkamp's killing.

Pistorius was acquitted on two other weapons charges, including another count of firing a gun in public and a count of illegal possession of ammunition in the Pretoria home where he killed Steenkamp.

Steenkamp's mother, June, said she doesn't care what happens to Pistorius because nothing can change the fact that her daughter is gone.

Still, she said, the athlete's story is hard to believe.

"She died a horrible death, a horrible, painful, terrible death, and she suffered," she told NBC News. "He shot through the door, and I can't believe that they believe that it was an accident."

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Associated Press writers Andy Meldrum in Johannesburg and Fazlur Philips in Port Elizabeth contributed to this report.

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