Dolus eventualis: What is it – and how has it affected the Oscar Pistorius trial?

The distinction between premeditated murder, dolus eventualis murder and culpable homicide is crucial to the Pistorius trial

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Giving her verdict in Oscar Pistorius’s trial over the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, Judge Thokozile Masipa has had to decide between premeditated murder, dolus eventualis murder, culpable homicide and acquittal.

But what does dolus eventualis mean?

Premeditated murder is simple enough; it was the prosecution’s case that the Olympic and Paralympic athlete grabbed his gun and intentionally shot his girlfriend through the toilet door following a heated argument.

Dolus eventualis murder, also known as common murder, is a lesser charge. In essence, it means that you are responsible for the foreseeable consequences of your actions.

According to South African law, intent in the form of dolus eventualis means it is enough to find someone guilty of murder if the perpetrator objectively foresees the possibility of his or her act causing death and persists regardless of the consequences.

In Pistorius’s case, it would seem that dolus eventualis murder would apply if he had fired four shots into a cubicle that he had known was occupied, aware his actions would kill, regardless of who he thought was in there.

But it is more complicated than that, since Oscar Pistorius was initially put on trial specifically for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp.

If the judge accepts that he thought Reeva Steenkamp was in the bedroom at the point when he shot each bullet - then he could not possibly have foreseen that firing his gun through the door could have killed her.