South African Paralympic icon Oscar Pistorius was freed on bail on Friday, pending a high-profile trial for killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.
Pretoria magistrate Desmond Nair ruled the “Blade Runner” was not a flight risk and did not pose a danger to society after an emotionally charged four-day bail hearing that transfixed South Africa and the world.
“I come to the conclusion that the accused has made a case to be released on bail,” Nair said to cries of “yes!” from Pistorius’s supporters in court.
Pistorius later left the magistrate’s court in a silver sports utility vehicle flanked by photographers and cameramen on motorbikes.
It was a first victory in what is expected to be a long legal battle with the state, which accuses Pistorius of premeditated murder.
Bail was set at one million rand ($112,770) and Pistorius will have to surrender his passport, firearms and report to Pretoria’s Brooklyn police between 7:00 am and 1:00 pm on Monday and Friday.
As the two-hour ruling was read, the 26-year-old stood in the dock weeping and quivering as his family looked on, riven with tension.
Following the magistrate’s decision, Pistorius was escorted to the holding area sobbing uncontrollably, as his brother Carl hugged sister Aimee and the broader family huddled in prayer.
“We are relieved by the fact that Oscar got bail today, but at the same time, we are in mourning for Reeva Steenkamp and her family,” said the athlete’s uncle and family spokesman Arnold Pistorius.
“As a family, we know Oscar’s version of what happened that night, and we know that it is the truth that will prevail in the coming court case.”
Pistorius will head to a relative’s house rather than return to the Pretoria estate where Steenkamp was killed.
“He doesn’t want to go back to the house,” said his attorney Barry Roux.
His arrest on February 14 shocked the world and gripped South Africa, where he is still considered a national hero after becoming the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics.
Pistorius spent more than a week at a Pretoria police station charged with the premeditated Valentine’s Day killing of Steenkamp, a model and law graduate.
If found guilty he faces a possible life sentence. He denies the charge, saying that he shot 29-year-old Steenkamp repeatedly through a locked bathroom door having mistaken her for a burglar. Outside the court there were mixed reactions.
“In South Africa, as far as the law is concerned, if you are rich you are always free,” said 29-year-old law student Adolph Baloyi.
Experts said the case could now be fast-tracked through the courts. “This is probably going to get priority and will probably take about six months to go to trial,” said Stephen Tuson, a criminal law professor at the University of Witwatersrand.
Despite the victory, Pistorius may have a tough task to avoid jail time. While magistrate Nair harshly criticised the police work in the case, he said of Pistorius’s account of events that “there are improbabilities that need to be explored.”
Just hours before the magistrate’s decision, Pistorius’s lawyer appeared to admit the star sprinter could be convicted on lesser charges of homicide.
That charge, which entails negligence rather than murderous intent, could carry a sentence of up to 15 years in prison, or in some instances release and a warning.
“We can never ever say that he acted in self-defence,” Roux told the court “He is exposed to be convicted of culpable homicide.”
The bail proceedings offered more than a glimmer of what is to come, with so many details about Steenkamp’s last hours that it sometimes appeared to be a trial in miniature.
Chief prosecutor Gerrie Nel summed up the state’s case.
“He fired four shots, not one. He meant to kill. On his own version, he’s bound to be convicted.”
He added that Pistorius “must realise that a long term of imprisonment is almost guaranteed.”
But the prosecution will be worried that its evidence was so easily picked apart by the defence.
Serious doubt was cast on the work of Hilton Botha, the detective who investigated the crime scene.
Under oath Botha admitted he may have contaminated the crime scene and appeared to undermine a neighbour’s accounts of an argument between Pistorius and Steenkamp before she died.
He has since been sacked after it emerged he faces seven attempted murder charges for having opened fire on a minibus in 2011.
But his errors could be significant in a case were the only eyewitnesses are the accused and the deceased.
“I’m sure it could have been handled better,” Botha himself told the court.
The prosecution will now have a few short months to regroup and try and put the case back on track.
The country’s most senior detective Lieutenant General Vineshkumar Moonoo has been called on to lead the case.
Medupe Simasiku, a spokesman for the National Prosecution Authority, was resolute: “We would like to assure everyone that we are still confident in this case.”
The ruling ANC’s women’s league said it believed Pistorius would still be found guilty.
“We remain vigilant in our demand for justice,” the group said, adding they were “satisfied that the charges remain a schedule six offense carrying a possible life sentence if found guilty.”
Pistorius is due back in court on June 4 for a procedural preliminary appearance.