After a roller-coaster four-day hearing, Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius was granted bail yesterday ahead of his murder trial, with Chief Magistrate Desmond Nair ruling that there was no risk he would flee to escape justice.
In a major victory for the Pistorius camp, Nair said the state's case was not so watertight as to preclude releasing the athlete.
The court set bail at one million rand (HK$870,000) and postponed the case until June 4. Pistorius was ordered to hand over firearms and passports, avoid his home and witnesses in the case, report to a police station twice a week and not drink alcohol.
Nair's decision drew cheers from the family of the athlete, who appeared unmoved. It followed a week of dramatic testimony about how Pistorius shot dead Reeva Steenkamp at his luxury home near Pretoria in the early hours of February 14.
The judge said the state had failed to show that Pistorius was a flight risk, and while he had a history of aggressive behaviour, the state failed to show he was likely to commit violence or interfere with witnesses if released.
Nair was highly critical of the main police investigator - Hilton Botha, who was removed from the case this week - although he said Botha's testimony was not the state's entire case.
Earlier, Pistorius sobbed as the magistrate began reading out his ruling. His shoulders shook as Nair summarised the accused's statement in the hushed courtroom. Nair paused briefly to ask Pistorius: "Are you OK there?"
The magistrate read out detailed testimony of Pistorius' version of events on the night his model and law-graduate girlfriend was killed at his heavily secured home. "The deceased died in his arms," Nair said.
Pistorius later regained his composure as the magistrate delved into the history of bail law in South Africa - and cited 17th century English common law. In a two-hour summary of the case and of the laws governing bail, Nair also read a series of character references from friends of the athlete, who described his relationship with the 29-year-old Steenkamp as loving and happy.
Nair said that while the prosecution case rested on "nothing more than circumstantial evidence", there were "improbabilities that need to be explored" in Pistorius' account of events.
"The only person who knows what happened there is the accused," he said.
However, Nair seemed sceptical about the risk of flight by the double-amputee Olympian.
"What kind of life would he lead, a person who has to use prostheses, if he has to flee" and found himself "ducking and diving every day" on artificial limbs, the magistrate asked. "His international career would be over in any event."
"A life not in prison," prosecutor Gerrie Nel replied, comparing Pistorius to the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has taken refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, despite his "famous face".
Nair also pointed out holes in Pistorius' story that may prove important when the case comes to trial. He asked why Pistorius did not ascertain Steenkamp's whereabouts and chose not verify who was in the toilet. Nair also wondered why Steenkamp did not scream back from the toilet.
The hearing, stuffed with dramatic revelations and astonishing twists, has riveted South Africans, with the population deeply divided over whether he is innocent or guilty.
At one point, the government's minister for women, children and people with disabilities, Lulu Xingwana, attended the hearing and told journalists that Pistorius should be denied bail.
The New York Times, Associated Press, The Guardian