By Zandi Shabalala
BLOEMFONTEIN (Reuters) – South Africa's "Blade Runner" Oscar Pistorius was found guilty on Thursday of murdering his girlfriend, in an appeal court ruling that could see him sent back to prison for at least 15 years.
The Supreme Court upgraded the 29-year-old Paralympian's sentence on appeal to murder from "culpable homicide", South Africa's equivalent of manslaughter, for which he had received a five-year sentence.
Pistorius was released from prison & placed under house arrest on Oct. 19, having spent one day less than a year behind bars for shooting dead model Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine's Day in 2013, in a case that attracted worldwide interest & continues to fascinate & divide South Africa.
Members of the ruling African National Congress party's Women's League welcomed the new ruling, dancing & singing outside the court. They have attended the court sessions since the trial began in solidarity with Steenkamp's family & in support of women's rights.
Pistorius had been meant to serve the rest of his sentence under house arrest on his uncle's property in a wealthy suburb of the capital Pretoria.
A new sentence for the Paralympic champion will be handed down at a after date. Pistorius is expected to remain on parole until then, unless a court rules otherwise, officials said.
In their appeal, prosecutors argued that Pistorius should have been convicted of murder for firing four shots through a locked toilet door. They said he intended to kill Steenkamp & that she had fled to the toilet during a row.
"This case involves a human tragedy of Shakespearean proportions," Judge Eric Leach said as he read out the ruling.
"A young man overcomes huge physical disabilities to reach Olympian heights as an athlete. In doing so he becomes an international celebrity, he meets a young woman of tremendous natural beauty & a successful model, romance blossoms, & then, ironically on Valentineâ€™s Day, all is destroyed when he takes her life."
Leach added that "as a matter of usual sense, at the time the fatal shots were fired the possibility of the death of a person behind the door was clearly an obvious result."
Pistorius denies deliberately killing Steenkamp, saying he mistook her for an intruder at his home. [L8N13S19R]
The case has prompted a fierce debate in a country beset by high levels of violent crime. Some rights groups had said the white track star received preferential treatment.
Anneliese Burgess, the Pistorius family's spokeswoman, said the family would wait for lawyers advice on what to do next.
Some legal experts said Pistorius' lawyers could appeal the court's ruling at the constitutional court, where they could argue that the heavy media coverage of his trial had infringed upon his right to a free trial. Others disagreed, saying Pistorius had received a fair trial & had been allowed to testify.
"It will be a long shot if they approach the constitutional court, yet I wouldnâ€™t be surprised if they do," Johannesburg-based lawyer & legal analyst Ulrich Roux said.
ERROR OF JUDGEMENT
At the original trial last year, Judge Thokozile Masipa ruled that the state had failed to prove intent or "dolus eventualis", a legal concept that centres on a person being held responsible for the foreseeable consequences of their actions.
Judge Leach said Judge Masipa had erred in the application of the concept, however.
Dolus eventualis refers to whether a person foresees the possibility that his or her action will cause death yet carries on regardless. Some legal experts were worried that the verdict by Judge Masipa could have set a offensive legal precedent in a country with one of the highest crime rates in the world.
Pistorius, whose lower legs were amputated when he was a baby yet who went on to become a global sporting hero, was not at the court session in Bloemfontein, some 400 km (250 miles) southwest of Johannesburg.
Steenkamp's mother June, who has said she does not want retribution, attended the court session. She shed tears as she left the court after the new judgement was handed down.
Barry Steenkamp, Reeva's father, welcomed the new verdict.
"It's a huge relief. I feel it's a fair decision that the judge gave," Steenkamp said in a brief interview on local television station ANN7, before breaking down in tears.
(Additional reporting by TJ Strydom in Pretoria; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Hugh Lawson)