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Oscar Pistorius case: Supreme Court finds trial judge made 'errors in law', ignored evidence

The judge who presided over the trial of Oscar Pistorius has been strongly criticised by South Africa's Supreme Court for making "fundamental" errors and "ignoring" key evidence during last year's trial.

In an extraordinary twist in the case, Judge Eric Leach last night threw out Thokozile Masipa's original verdict of culpable homicide and replaced it with murder.

Judge Leach said Judge Masipa made multiple "errors in law" in her ruling that the Paralympic star could not have foreseen Reeva Steenkamp's death when he fired four shots through a locked toilet door on Valentine's Day 2013.

Reading the unanimous finding of the five-judge bench, Judge Leach described the case as a "human tragedy of Shakespearean proportions".

PHOTO: Judge Eric Leach said the trial court ignored crucial evidence from a ballistics expert. (Johan Pretorius: POOL: AFP)
"All is destroyed when he takes her life," Judge Leach said.

Among Judge Leach's extensive criticisms of Judge Masipa's "fundamental" errors, he said that she "ignored" key evidence from a ballistics expert.

The legal reversal was a public humiliation for Judge Masipa, 68, who grew up in Soweto, an impoverished township outside Johannesburg.

She became an overnight sensation when she heard the Pistorius case, with many South Africans proud that a black woman from humble means would decide the fate of a rich white man.

Often described as an inspiration and a role model, Judge Masipa was a living example of how far the country had come since Nelson Mandela was elected South Africa's first democratic president in 1994.

Judge Masipa became a lawyer late in life, and in 1998 became only the second black woman in the country to be appointed to the bench.

She became known for her careful, steely, decisions.

In one case, she sentenced a serial rapist dubbed the "Axeman" to over 250 years in prison.

Yet during the Pistorius trial, the soft-spoken Judge Masipa rarely interjected as state prosecutor Gerrie Nel sparred with Pistorius defence lawyer Barry Roux.

Her harshest words appeared to be reserved for anyone in court whose mobile phones interrupted proceedings.

Judge Masipa will re-sentence the Paralympic gold medallist at a later date.
Oscar Pistorius case: Supreme Court finds trial judge made 'errors in law', ignored evidence
'Appeal not to be regarded as a slight'

Judge Masipa's controversial decision to find Pistorius not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter last September brought attacks from many quarters.

But Judge Leach added a conclusion to Thursday's ruling, in an apparent attempt to protect her reputation.

"The trial judge conducted the hearing with a degree of dignity and patience that is a credit to the judiciary," Judge Leach said.

"The fact that the appeal has succeeded is not to be regarded as a slight upon the trial judge, who is to be congratulated for the manner in which she conducted the proceedings."

Media player: "Space" to play, "M" to mute, "left" and "right" to seek.

Kelly Phelps, a senior law lecturer at the University of Cape Town, welcomed the gesture.

"I think the way he handled that today gave her respect, it's extraordinary that he did that," Ms Phelps said.

"She is singlehandedly the most experienced black female on the bench in the country at the moment.

"The full terrain of her career deserves more respect and dignity than one judgement that was unpopular."

A lower court must hand Pistorius a new sentence and the responsibility normally falls to the original trial judge.

"A judge being overruled by an appellate court is common," defence lawyer Martin Hood said.

"But the process is not over and we need to see an appropriate sentence.

"We're still presented with a pertinent opportunity to deal with violence against women."

Pistorius now faces a minimum of 15 years behind bars.

The 29-year-old has been under house arrest since October after serving just a year of a five-year jail term.

The country's national prosecuting authority has not yet set a date for his re-sentencing. AFP
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