South African prosecutors face a struggle to win a premeditated murder conviction for Oscar Pistorius when the Paralympian gold medalist's trial starts Monday, legal analysts said.
While Pistorius, 27, has admitted to shooting his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp three times in the middle of the night while she was in his bathroom on Valentine's Day last year, prosecutors may find it hard to prove he had criminal intent, Stephen Tuson, a criminal law professor at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand, said in a phone interview.
Tuson said this may change depending on what evidence prosecutors have.
"It's a stretch in my view to prove that this unplanned scenario was premeditated," Tuson said. "I don't think any court is going to find that."
The trial of the man once on Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people has drawn worldwide interest, with one television operator dedicating a 24-hour channel to the story. The trial has derailed the running career of the winner of six Paralympic gold medals and cost Pistorius sponsorship deals with Nike Inc. and Luxottica Group SpA's Oakley.
Given Pistorius's admission of killing Steenkamp, he will probably be found guilty of culpable homicide, Tuson said. While a premeditated murder conviction could carry a life sentence with the earliest parole coming after 25 years, culpable homicide sentences usually range from a warning to a 10-year jail sentence, he said.
"If I was his attorney I would have been pushing for a plea-and-sentence agreement on culpable homicide," Tuson said. "But I don't know the facts."
Known as the Blade Runner because of his J-shaped prosthetic running blades, Pistorius has been free on 1 million rand ($92,710) bail since February last year after four days of hearings. The sprinter says he thought Steenkamp was an intruder at his home in a gated community in Pretoria.
The team of U.S. forensic specialists Pistorius enlisted to assist his legal team may help him beat the premeditated murder charge, said Jules Epstein, an associate professor of Law at Delaware-based Widener University.
"He has assembled quite a supporting team, both in terms of skilled lawyers and skilled forensic specialists," Epstein said in a Feb. 26 interview. "Having a great team can make a huge difference."
Pistorius is also countering the wave of media attention. His Twitter profile shows a photo of him playfully jogging next to a small girl on prosthetic legs similar to his. He was born without fibulas and had both legs amputated below the knee at 11 months old.
The North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, which will also be hearing the trial, on Feb. 25 ruled that the case can be broadcast live on radio and partially live on television.
Multichoice Africa Ltd. and Primedia Broadcasting Ltd. were granted permission to provide the coverage, High Court Judge Dunstan Mlambo said.
"Oscar Pistorius's career has been of great interest to South Africans and peaked in 2012 when he made Olympics history as the first sprinter to compete using prosthetic blades," Aletta Alberts, the head of content at Multichoice, said in an emailed response to questions. "This incident and subsequent judicial process has attracted more public interest than any other of its kind in South Africa."