Pistorius' family disputes murder charge

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JOHANNESBURG -- The family of South African double amputee Oscar Pistorius denied Friday that the Olympic athlete had murdered his girlfriend, in a statement released shortly after he broke down and wept during his first court appearance.

Mr. Pistorius, revered for overcoming his disability to compete in the London Olympics last year, is facing a murder charge in the shooting of his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine's Day, a tragedy that shocked and divided South Africans.

Mr. Pistorius, 26, held his face and cried uncontrollably Friday during his first appearance in the Pretoria Magistrate's Court. "Take it easy," said Magistrate Desmond Nair before he delayed the bail hearing to allow the runner's lawyers more time to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death Thursday of Ms. Steenkamp, 29, at the athlete's home in the city. Mr. Pistorius' brother, Carl, sitting alongside his father and sister, laid a hand on the sprinter's back, as Judge Nair remanded him to a Pretoria jail.

Arguments over Mr. Pistorius' bail application are to be heard Tuesday, when some details of his defense and the prosecution case are expected.

Mr. Pistorius did not enter a plea Friday. Instead, the denial was made in a news statement issued by his family and management company that said: "The alleged murder is disputed in the strongest possible terms." The statement has no legal force but suggests that Mr. Pistorius is likely to plead not guilty.

One of the National Prosecuting Authority's most senior advocates, Gerrie Nel, is prosecuting the case. He said he would argue that the killing was premeditated murder, the most serious category of offense under law in South Africa, which abolished capital punishment in 1995.

The family statement said the runner wanted to "send his deepest sympathies" to Ms. Steenkamp's family. "He would also like to express his thanks through us today for all the messages of support he has received, but as stated, our thoughts and prayers today should be for Reeva and her family, regardless of the circumstances of this terrible, terrible tragedy," the statement read.

Under South African law, an accused person charged with an offense of such gravity would have to prove exceptional circumstances to be granted bail. Defense lawyers are expected to request that the seriousness of the charge be downgraded in order to support the bail application.

Mr. Nel is known for prosecuting high-profile cases, including the successful conviction of former police chief and Interpol boss Jackie Selebi for corruption.

Members of Mr. Pistorius' family struggled to make it through the media scrum and find seats at the court hearing, which coincided with "Black Friday" -- a day when South Africans were urged to wear black to protest violence against women. The event followed a recent brutal gang rape and murder in South Africa.

One of Ms. Steenkamp's last tweets was a call on people to join the protest. Ms. Steenkamp got a degree in law from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and was voted in the Top 100 most attractive women last year in the South Africa edition of FHM, an international men's lifestyle magazine, according to her publicist Sarit Tomlinson.

Mr. Pistorius appeared as South African media reported that he shot Ms. Steenkamp four times through a bathroom door, citing a neighbor who spoke with security guards. If true, this might complicate efforts to mount a defense that the runner mistook her for an intruder. Under South African law, a person who fatally shoots an intruder must prove he had a reasonable fear that the intruder posed a real threat to his or her life.

While many fans took to social media to declare their support for Mr. Pistorius and belief in his innocence, there were also damaging rumors and allegations.

Beeld newspaper reported that security at Mr. Pistorius' upscale complex had been upgraded, and that one resident maintained that it wouldn't be possible for an intruder to gain access. The newspaper claimed that police were called to Mr. Pistorius' house about two hours before the shooting because of an argument between the couple. Officers were called back by a neighbor who heard shots about 3 a.m., the time the shooting allegedly took place, the newspaper reported.

South Africa has one of the world's highest rates of gun homicides, with slayings by intimate partners the leading cause of homicides among women. Fifty-seven percent of female homicide victims were killed by their partners in 2009, according to a report last year by the Medical Research Council. A third of the female victims were slain by partners with a history of prior violence against them, according to the report, "Every Eight Hours."


Bloomberg News and Associated Press contributed.


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