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A tearful Oscar Pistorius testifies in murder trial

AfricaCrime, Law and JusticeOscar PistoriusHomicideCrimeJustice SystemSouth Africa

PRETORIA, South Africa — Two distinct portraits are emerging at the Pretoria High Court murder trial of South African Olympian Oscar Pistorius.

The prosecution's portrayal of Pistorius as an aggressive, gun-loving, controlling man with a quick temper was countered Monday by the athlete, who testified for the first time in the month-old trial.

Pistorius described himself as a serious, deeply religious good Samaritan, racked with crippling remorse about fatally shooting his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, in the early hours of Valentine's Day 2013.

Pistorius' voice cracked repeatedly and he shed tears talking about his mother, Sheila, the pillar of his life, who died when he was a teenager, and Steenkamp, the woman he fell for and who "felt loved." He apologized to Steenkamp's family.

At times Pistorius' voice fell to a low whisper. Judge Thokozile Masipa and Pistorius' defense lawyer, Barry Roux, several times urged him to speak up.

Pistorius, 27, has pleaded not guilty to murder in Steenkamp's death, saying he mistook her for an intruder when he shot her through the door of a toilet closet at his home. He also pleaded not guilty to two charges of recklessly discharging a gun and one charge of unlicensed possession of ammunition.

The trial of Pistorius, a national hero as the first athlete to compete in the Olympics on prosthetic devices, has captivated South Africans much in the way the O.J. Simpson case once riveted Americans. The lurid tale surrounding the slaying of Steenkamp, a model and lawyer, is even being tracked by its own 24/7 cable television channel.

Pistorius is building his defense around a fear that many in South Africa share. The country has one of the world's highest rates of violent crime. Break-ins are common and many people are heavily armed.

Pistorius testified that he wanted nothing to do with guns anymore, slept with a security guard at his door, and sometimes had panic attacks.

"I wake up and I smell blood, and I wake up to be terrified. I wake up in a complete state of terror. I would rather not sleep," he said. One episode was so bad, he said, that he hid in a cupboard in the middle of the night.

"I woke up and I was terrified, and I for some reason couldn't calm myself, so I climbed into the cupboard and I phoned my sister to come and sit by me, which she did," he said.

He described growing up with an enduring fear of crime as the middle son of a divorced mother who lived alone with her children in a crime-ridden area. She slept with her gun concealed in a leather bag under her pillow. Sometimes when terrified of an impending crime, she would call her children into her room at night to be near her.

Pistorius, a double amputee who used carbon-fiber leg blades to run in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, recounted how his mother never coddled him, and instead expected him to play sports and to defend himself when he was bullied. She died of complications following surgery when he was 15.

He also described his plans to sell his house in Pretoria so that he could buy a house in Johannesburg to be nearer to Steenkamp.

"I was bowled over by how much I fell for her," he said

He said the 29-year-old Steenkamp was a "very strong Christian. She would pray for me at night, praying about everything."

Pistorius began his testimony by standing in the witness box and delivering a halting, tearful apology to Steenkamp's family for the pain he had caused them. The family benches were packed.

"I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to Mrs. and Mr. Steenkamp, to Reeva's family, to all those of you who knew her who are here today, to her family and friends," he said. "There's not a moment and hasn't been a moment since this tragedy happened that I haven't thought about her family.

"I can't imagine the pain and emptiness and sorrow that I've caused your family. I was simply trying to protect Reeva. I can promise you that when she went to bed that night she felt loved," he said, his voice trembling.

He said he had often sat down to try to write a letter of apology to Steenkamp's family but found there were no words adequate to convey what he wanted to say.

His testimony offered a complicated picture of a man who for all his bravado about competing head-to-head with able-bodied athletes was shy and embarrassed about his prosthetic legs and would cover them with clothes when he took them off, to conceal them.

"I get shy about them or embarrassed about them when I don't have them on," he told the court.

The prosecution contends that Pistorius intentionally killed Steenkamp and that even if he did mistake her for an intruder, that he intended to kill someone. The case includes evidence from a gun instructor indicating that Pistorius was familiar with South African laws that make it illegal to open fire on an intruder unless the shooter is in reasonable fear for his or her life.

The trial, which began March 3, has also included testimony by a neighbor who said she was awakened by a woman's voice in what sounded like an argument, followed by four loud bangs, like gunshots. Prosecutors also produced cellphone messages from Steenkamp to Pistorius criticizing how he treated her and saying he sometimes frightened her. Some prosecution witnesses testified he had a quick temper and acted recklessly with guns.

The defense is emphasizing Pistorius' fear of crime and sense of vulnerability. It is expected to attempt to prove that that vulnerability made it reasonable for him to fire four bullets through a closed door because he feared for his life.

Sound experts will be called to testify on Pistorius' contention that he was the only person who screamed that night and that he sounded like a woman, meaning that neighbors who testified they heard a female scream were mistaken.

Pistorius testified that on many occasions he and family members had been victims of crime. His home was burglarized in 2005 and a laptop and TV were stolen. An intruder got into his garden, kicking and injuring his Jack Russell terrier. His car was followed on several occasions, he testified.

On one occasion, Pistorius said, a car on the highway sped past him and he saw the muzzle of a gun pointing at him and heard a gunshot.

"I just saw the muzzle flash and I could hear the bang coming from the vehicle," he said. He swerved off the highway and escaped.

Pistorius also described two times when he said he helped assault victims.

In one case, he saw a woman in the parking lot of a shopping mall being assaulted by two men.

"I got out of the car and told them to back off and leave the woman alone," he said.

In January last year, he saw several men from a commuter minivan drag a man from his car, break the windows and start bashing the man's head with bricks.

Pistorius said he was initially unsure what to do, hesitated, then drew his pistol, got out of his car and told the assailants to stop. The men fled in their vehicle.

Pistorius testified that he was tired, taking antidepressants and often unable to sleep, including the night before his testimony.

"I'm just very tired at the moment," he said, before breaking into sobs.

Masipa adjourned the trial until Tuesday.

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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AfricaCrime, Law and JusticeOscar PistoriusHomicideCrimeJustice SystemSouth Africa
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