PRETORIA, South Africa -- The murder trial of South African Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius began dramatically in Pretoria’s High Court on Monday, with a neighbor testifying that she heard “bloodcurdling screams” on the night his girlfriend was killed.
Michelle Burger, the neighbor who lives close to Pistorius, told the court that she was awakened by the sound of a woman screaming in the early hours of Valentine’s Day morning last year. She said that she sat up in bed and that her husband woke up and went out onto their balcony to listen.
“It was a very traumatic thing. We could hear very close bloodcurdling screams,” she told the court. “I thought it was a house-breaking.”
Pistorius, who in 2012 won acclaim for becoming the first amputee athlete to compete in the Olympics, pleaded not guilty to the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, as family members sat behind him in court Monday.
Further along the same court bench, members of Steenkamp’s family, including her mother, June Steenkamp, were seated. They looked grim as Pistorius walked into the court, passing in front of them before taking his seat.
June Steenkamp, 67, said she came to court look Pistorius in the eye, according to the Pretoria News newspaper.
“I want to look at Oscar, really look him in the eyes and see for myself the truth about what he did to Reeva. Whatever the court decides at the end of his trial, I will be ready to forgive him. ... But first I want to force him to look at me, Reeva’s mother, and see the pain and anguish he has inflicted on me. I feel I need that.”
As he sat, Pistorius, a double amputee who used carbon-fiber blades to run in the London Olympics, drank from a water bottle, his hand trembling visibly. At one point before the trial began, he scribbled copious notes on a pad of paper.
South Africa does not have a jury system, and the trial is being heard by Judge Thokozile Masipa.
Pistorius admits that he shot and killed Steenkamp through a toilet door at his apartment, but claims that he believed she was a intruder.
In her testimony, Burger said that when she heard the screams, she assumed that intruders were attacking a couple. She said she heard a woman scream for help, and a man’s voice also calling for help.
She said she told her husband to phone the apartment complex's security guards to report the incident. Shortly afterward, the woman’s screams grew louder, she said.
“My husband went back on the balcony. I was still in bed. I heard her scream again. It was worse. It was more intense. She was very scared. The screams were at a climax,” Burger testified.
She said she then heard four gunshots. “Bang ... bang-bang ... bang,” she said, describing a pause between the first shot, followed by two shots close together, then a small pause followed by a fourth shot.
Burger said she told her husband that she believed a neighbor had seen her husband shot dead in front of her by an intruder.
She testified that her husband called her at work the next day to tell her that about news reports that Oscar Pistorius had killed his girlfriend and had mistaken her for a burglar.
“I told my husband it could not be, because that was not what we heard,” she told the court. Burger said she did not know Pistorius and had never seen him before Monday’s court hearing.
Slides showing the proximity between Burger’s balcony and the Pistorius residence were projected in the courtroom.
Pistorius’ opening statement to the court, read by his lawyer, Ken Oldwage, spelled out the defense case that the killing was a terrible accident. He accused the prosecution of character assassination and relying on inadmissible evidence. Oldwage said the prosecution’s claims that witnesses had heard an argument could not be true because there had been no argument between Pistorius and Steenkamp that night.
Oldwage said Pistorius woke up in the middle of the night, went onto the residence's balcony to get two fans and walked back into the darkened bedroom. The lawyer said Pistorius had spoken to Steenkamp shortly before this and did not realize that she had left the room and gone to the toilet.
He said the athlete heard the sound of the bathroom window sliding open and thought an intruder was getting into the residence, so Pistorius took his gun and fired through the door in order to protect himself and his girlfriend.
“The allegation that I wanted to kill Reeva could not be further from the truth,” Pistorius’ statement said Monday.
His statement also said the scene in his apartment had been “tampered with.”
[Updated, 1:32 p.m., March 3: Hundreds of photographers and cameraman crowded outside the courtroom early Monday waiting for a glimpse of Pistorius as he arrived. The trial, the first to be televised in South Africa, had audiences on social media enthralled, some tweeting their support for Pistorius, others declaring their belief that he was sure to be convicted.
Barry Roux, one of Pistorius' defense attorneys, hammered away at Burger for most of the afternoon, suggesting that the voice she heard screaming was not that of Steenkamp but Pistorius, who he said sounded like a woman when upset.
He suggested that the shots were fired earlier, when Burger was asleep and that what she heard weren’t gunshots but the sounds of Pistorius bashing down the toilet door with a cricket bat after shooting Steenkamp.
“I’ve got no doubt I heard gun shots. I did not hear a cricket bat hitting a door,” Burger said.
Roux suggested that Burger had begun with a belief in Pistorius’ guilt, and he accused her of fabricating sections of her evidence and adapting her story.
“You’re not sure. You’re adapting, you’re speculating, you’re trying to close all the gaps,” he said.
He also appeared to foreshadow the testimony of other witnesses, saying that other neighbors who lived closer to Pistorius claimed to have heard a man crying loudly on the night Steenkamp died.
The credibility of these opposing accounts will likely be one of the key points on which the case turns.]
In addition to the murder charge, the prosecution also read out two charges of recklessly discharging a gun in a public place, once in a restaurant and once through the sunroof of a car, against Pistorius. He was also charged with illegal possession of ammunition. He pleaded not guilty to all those charges as well.
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