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After Nearly 2 Years, Pistorius Remains Elusive

Olympian Oscar Pistorius reacts as he listens to Judge Thokozile Masipa's judgment at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, Sept. 11, 2014.
Olympian Oscar Pistorius reacts as he listens to Judge Thokozile Masipa's judgment at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, Sept. 11, 2014.

One would think that after following the Oscar Pistorius saga for nearly two years, I could now say that I know the guy pretty well.

Through 41 days of covering the murder trial, I've seen almost every element of his short life pulled apart and analyzed.

He has tearfully told us about his childhood, about the toll of growing up with a disability, and the pain of losing a parent. I recognize most of his family members on sight and can tell most of his ex-girlfriends apart - harder than it sounds, since they all bear a striking resemblance to Reeva Steenkamp. I might even have the names of his dogs written down somewhere.

I've seen him cry more times than I can count, and I hazard to say I've seen him vomit more times than any other adult I've ever known.

But after all of this, I still have no idea what he is thinking or, critically, what he was thinking on that fateful night of Feb. 14, 2013, when he shot Steenkamp four times through his locked bathroom door.

And that, as Judge Thokozile Masipa noted at the September 12 verdict reading, is at the very heart of the case. It may explain her controversial decision to absolve him of premeditated murder and murder, and only convict him for culpable homicide.

"The issues are limited to whether," she said in her two-day judgement, which was sort of like a cricket match - long and full of tea breaks, and we never quite knew who was going to ultimately end up on top - "at the time the accused shot and killed the deceased, he had the requisite intention, and if so, whether there was any premeditation?"

Pistorius, she noted, was "an evasive and very poor witness," and constantly changed his story during his dramatic week of testimony. At the time, many legal scholars said he was his own worst enemy on this stand. But under Masipa's interpretation, that scattershot testimony seems to have shown a muddled state of mind effectively enough to avoid a murder conviction.

Masipa did, however, establish some extremely elementary descriptors of his character. He suffers from anxiety, when threatened prefers fight over flight, knows the difference between right and wrong, is capable of loving and complex relationships, and is prone to actions that are unreasonable, reckless and negligent. She could have been describing the psychological profile of my cat.

I think it's clear she wanted to go a bit further, acidly noting that, in a nation known for its horrendous crime statistics: "Many people in this country have been victims of violent crime but have not resorted to sleeping with firearms under their pillows."

But ultimately, with this verdict, the judge said she had no alternative but to accept his account of what he was thinking. There just weren't, she noted in her inscrutable style, enough facts to suggest otherwise. Was this a jab against the prosecution? Who knows, as Masipa is harder to read than Pistorius.

On the first day of the trial, I asked him how he was feeling as he walked into court. I didn't actually expect him to give me more than a feeble pleasantry - maybe the reflexive "I'm-fine-and-you?" that South Africans charmingly spout every time you greet them. He stopped, turned in my direction, and then stared right through me. I never asked again.

On Friday, as he emerged post-verdict into a swarm of journalists, someone else tried.

"What's your reaction to the judgment?" yelled an Australian voice from within the depths of the anthill of journalists and onlookers.

No response.

His uncle, who has become something of a media darling, spoke later for the family, saying they were grateful to Judge Masipa for sparing a murder conviction. But even Uncle Arnold Pistorius seemed conflicted right after the verdict, shaking his head in apparent disappointment. Aimee Pistorius, Oscar's perpetually black-clad younger sister, rushed to his side and rocked him gently, like a baby.

It should surprise no one who has watched this trial that Pistorius cried when Masipa found that she couldn't convict him on the harsher murder charges.

It made me remember something that bulldog prosecutor Gerrie Nel said, as he tried to cut through Pistorius' sobbing during his bail hearing to guess at his motives. "Are you crying because you feel sorry for yourself," he asked, "or because of Reeva?"

It remains an interesting question. When Pistorius heard the biggest news of his life with this verdict, was he crying in relief, or in disappointment?

Only he knows.