Pistorius’ family disputes murder charge

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.

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, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine’s Day, a tragedy that shocked and divided South Africans.

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.” It has no legal force but suggests that 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.

Arguments over Pistorius’ bail application will be heard Tuesday, when some details of his defense and the prosecution case are expected. Until then, he was remanded in custody.

The family statement said the runner wanted to “send his deepest sympathies” to 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.

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 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. It followed a recent brutal gang rape and murder in South Africa.

One of Steenkamp’s last tweets was a call on people to join the protest.

Pistorius appeared as South African media reported that he shot 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 Steenkamp for an intruder. Under South African law, a person who fatally shoots an intruder has to prove he or she 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 Pistorius and belief in his innocence, there were also damaging rumors and allegations.

Beeld newspaper reported that security at Pistorius’ upscale complex had been upgraded and that one resident maintained it wouldn’t be possible for an intruder to gain access. The newspaper claimed that police were called to 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.”