PRETORIA, South Africa -- Oscar Pistorius bent over in his seat and retched violently at his murder trial Monday as a pathologist graphically detailed the wounds that killed the double-amputee Olympic runner’s girlfriend.
It was by all appearances a harrowing day for Pistorius, who is accused of the premeditated murder of Reeva Steenkamp, 29, in the early hours of Valentine’s Day last year. Earlier, during a court break, he was hunched over and deeply upset, with his sister, Aimee, and brother, Carl, hugging him.
Steenkamp was staying at the athlete's house on the night of the killing. Prosecutors allege that he shot her intentionally after she locked herself in a toilet off the bathroom, but he contends that he mistook her for a burglar and killed her accidentally. Pistorius fired the four shots that killed her.
Pistorius retched loudly as details of the postmortem examination were read out in court during the morning and afternoon. At one point, a court official moved the microphone near his seat in the dock so that the sounds would be less audible.
His retching was loudest as Steenkamp’s head injuries were detailed. Barry Roux, Pistorius’ attorney, told the court that the athlete was extremely upset and that his emotional state would not improve as the evidence continued to be presented.
Pathologist Gert Saayman described a massive head wound caused when a bullet hit Steenkamp in the head and traveled under her skin before penetrating her skull. The bullet then split into two, he said, with one fragment exiting the body.
He said another bullet entered her upper right arm, shattering the bone and then exiting the body. A third bullet entered near her right hip, he said. The pathologist also testified that she had a small wound between the fingers of one hand and that a fourth bullet was found, along tissue and blood, in the black sleeveless vest she had been wearing.
Saayman said the bullets were of a type referred to as Black Talon-style ammunition, which is designed to flatten out and expand on contact. He said the bullets were specifically designed to cause the maximum possible damage to the target.
The bullets, he said, open out like the petals of a flower on contact, with very sharp, jagged edges that cause maximum tissue damage. He showed the court a photograph with the remains of jagged, flattened bullet near the base of Steenkamp's skull.
He said the bullet appeared to have entered from the top of the head and traveled downward. This could be explained by Steenkamp bending her head forward at the time of the shot, he said. One bullet hit the hip bone and broke into many pieces, he said.
Saayman said South African forensic pathologists deal with gunshot injuries often and that he was familiar with expanding bullets and the damage they cause.
He testified that Steenkamp also had an abrasion in the middle of her back that could have been caused by impact with a hard object or by a bullet that had spent its force and struck the area without penetrating. He also detailed abrasions on the chest, which he said may have been caused by a bullet that had lost energy and grazed the body without entering.
He said the hip injury would have made it difficult for Steenkamp to remain standing and that the injury to her arm would have made it impossible to use the limb. Steenkamp would have immediately have lost consciousness after the shot to her head, he said.
Judge Thokozile Masipa banned the live broadcast, tweeting or blogging of Saayman’s testimony after a motion from the prosecution -- supported by the defense -- arguing that the evidence was so graphic it would harm the Steenkamp family and other people listening, potentially including children.
Masipa’s ruling banning tweeting from the courtroom was controversial, with some legal and media experts tweeting that it was out of line with previous South African trials in which evidence from postmortem examinations was read to the court and reported by journalists via Twitter.
“Is this trial different because Oscar is famous and rich?” tweeted Pierre De Vos, a constitutional law expert at the University of Cape Town. “All accused (and families of victims) should be treated the same,” he said in another tweet.
Twitter: @robyndixonCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times