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September 2, 2014

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Pistorius murder trial begins

PRETORIA, South Africa — The murder trial of Oscar Pistorius, set to open Monday, marks the start of a dramatic new chapter in the life of the double-amputee athlete who ran at the Olympics and became a global star before he shot his girlfriend to death.

Prosecutors charged the 27-year-old Pistorius with murder in Reeva Steenkamp's death and say it was with premeditation. They say they will seek a life sentence if Pistorius is convicted, the sternest punishment available in South Africa. South Africa no longer has the death penalty.

The intense public interest in the Pistorius trial is shown by the launching Sunday night of a 24-hour cable channel devoted to covering the court case.

If convicted on the murder charge, Pistorius could be sent to prison for at least 25 years before the chance of parole, the minimum time someone must serve if given a life sentence in South Africa. He would be older than 50 before he could be released.

The state says Pistorius intentionally killed Steenkamp at his home in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine's Day last year by shooting her through a toilet door after an argument. Pistorius denies murder and says he killed his girlfriend by mistake when he fired four times through the door thinking there was a dangerous nighttime intruder on the other side.

A lesser sentence is possible if Pistorius is found guilty of murder but without premeditation. He also could be convicted of culpable homicide, South Africa's version of manslaughter in which someone is killed through negligence.

Pistorius claims he was acting in self-defense against what he believed at the time was a threat to his life.

As well as murder, Pistorius faces a second charge of illegal possession of ammunition for bullets found at his Pretoria house that he allegedly didn't have proper licensing for. Prosecutors say he also will be indicted Monday with two more gun charges relating to him allegedly shooting in public on two separate occasions before Steenkamp's killing.

The serving of an updated indictment to Pistorius in court is expected to be the first move at the trial at Pretoria's high court. He has not yet been formally served with the papers that include all four charges against him, although his lawyers have had the papers and details of the additional gun charges since last year, prosecutors say. The gun charges reportedly relate to him allegedly shooting out the sunroof of a car in one incident and another when he allegedly fired a gun inside a restaurant, apparently by mistake.

Those incidents happened in the court jurisdiction of the city of Johannesburg, not where Steenkamp was killed in Pretoria, and prosecutors applied to have the two charges included and heard at his murder trial.

Female judge Thokozile Masipa will ultimately pronounce the champion runner innocent or guilty and will decide on any sentence. South Africa has no trial by jury.

Parts of the trial will be broadcast on live television, both in South Africa and across the world, and hundreds of reporters are expected to descend on North Gauteng High Court in the South African capital for the start of the trial. The 24-hour cable channel devoted solely to the trial will continue until the case is finished.

The trial will deal with the bloody killing of a 29-year-old model and law graduate, but also the issue of gun ownership and South Africa's problem of violent crime, which Pistorius says was the reason why he kept his licensed 9 mm handgun under his bed. Pistorius says his fear of crime was why he fired four shots through the door, hitting Steenkamp three times — in the head, elbow and hip.

Prosecutors maintain he was simply angry with her after an argument.

Members of Pistorius' family will likely attend the trial, as they did on his previous court hearings. His uncle, Arnold Pistorius, sister Aimee and brother Carl are all also listed as state witnesses.

"We love Oscar, and believe in him, and will be standing by him throughout the coming trial," Arnold Pistorius said in a statement over the weekend.

For the first time, members of Steenkamp's family will also be in the courtroom according to a family statement that her mother June and others would be at the trial. The parents and close relatives of Steenkamp did not attend any of Pistorius' previous court appearances.

"All we are looking for is closure and to know that our daughter did not suffer on that tragic Valentine's Day," Steenkamp's parents said in a statement this month and days before the one-year anniversary of the shooting that stunned South Africa.

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