Oscar Pistorius has likely avoided 25 years to life in prison — for now at least — after a judge said Thursday she would not convict the paralympian of murder.
The double amputee instead could serve as little as three years behind bars, or even a lengthy house arrest, after Judge Thokozile Masipa said she would not return a verdict of murder or premeditated murder.
Masipa stopped short of delivering her final verdict, adjourning proceedings until Friday. But Pretoria-based criminal defense lawyer Marius du Toit told NBC News the judge made clear that her intention was to convict Pistorius of culpable homicide, a charge similar to manslaughter in the United States.
The door was still open for the prosecution to appeal to try to make the murder charge stick. But were it to remain, a culpable homicide conviction carries a minimum five-year sentence. This means Pistorius could be out on parole in three years on good behavior.
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"Pistorius is now in the zone where he is very comfortable that he has been convicted of this," du Toit told NBC News. "Obviously he could have been acquitted entirely, but he was charged with murdering his girlfriend, carrying a minimum 25-year sentence, and now we know it was a terrible, terrible accident."
Du Toit acknowledged that some would refuse to accept the verdict, but he said the outcome would "really change Pistorius' public perception. I do not know if he will be able to compete athletically after this, but there might be a life for him after all this is over," he added.
Even if Pistorius is imprisoned, his jail time could be converted into a house arrest with added conditions such as a ban on drinking alcohol, according to South African criminologist Laurie Pieters. Pieters said she expected state prosecutors to appeal.
The judge’s decision not to convict Pistorius of murder came amid a day of high drama at the court in Pretoria, South Africa. According to du Toit, the prosecution case of premeditated murder fell apart for two reasons.
First, the judge said most of the witnesses "got their facts wrong" and their testimony did not match the timings of phone calls made on the night of the killing.
Second, despite describing Pistorius as "a very poor witness," the judge could not say with certainty that his version of events was untrue.
"When it came to Pistorius’ evidence, the judge had to ask herself, 'Despite the fact that you are absolutely rubbish in the witness box, can I exclude your version as a reasonable possibility?' And she could not," du Toit said.
If Pistorius does serve time behind bars it will likely be at Pretoria Central Prison. He would start in the maximum-security wing before being considered for transfer to the medium-security section.
"It's very overcrowded and not very hygienic," Pieters said of the facility. But she said she would be surprised if Pistorius was detained with the general prison population because of his disability.
"If you put him in with the general population there is a good chance that they could attack him or even use his legs as weapons against him," Pieters said. "He wouldn't be able to defend himself so it would not make sense."