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Oscar Pistorius murder trial: Witness recalls loud arguing before shots

PRETORIA, South Africa -- A neighbor of Olympian Oscar Pistorius testified in his murder trial Tuesday that she thought she heard a woman loudly arguing with someone the night the athlete shot and killed his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp.

Estelle Van der Merwe, who lives less than 100 yards from Pistorius’ house, said she was was awoken by the sound at 1:06 a.m. on Valentine's Day last year.

She said she was irritated by the loud voice, and tried to get to sleep by putting a pillow on her head.

“From where I was, it seemed like two people were involved in an argument, but I couldn’t hear the other person’s voice,” she told the High Court here.

About two hours later, she told the court, she heard four loud bangs. Van der Merwe said she asked her husband what the sounds were and that he told her they were gunshots.

Pistorius killed Steenkamp in the early hours of Valentine’s Day last year when he shot through the closed door of the toilet in his residence, off the bathroom. According to prosecutors, he fired four shots, including one that hit her in the head.

Pistorius has pleaded not guilty to the murder of his girlfriend. He contends that he mistook her for an intruder. Pistorius also has pleaded not guilty to two counts of recklessly using a firearm and another of having ammunition without a license.

Van der Merwe was visibly anxious during her testimony. At one point, Judge Thokozile Masipa encouraged her, saying, “You can do this.”

Van der Merwe took the stand shortly after another witness and neighbor, Michelle Burger, broke down weeping at the end of a long and grueling cross-examination by defense attorney Barry Roux, who suggested that Burger was unclear about events on the night in question. He intimated that Burger was convinced of Pistorius’ guilt and had retrospectively embellished her story based on what she had heard on the news.

Burger on Monday described hearing the “bloodcurdling screams” of a woman clearly in fear for her life. Roux said Tuesday it seemed that Burger was determined to avoid any concession that might help Pistorius’ case.

At one point, he accused her of misleading the court, referring to her statements as “not too honest.” But he withdrew the comment after prosecutor Gerrie Nel objected to his “sarcastic” tone.

Burger burst into tears when Nel asked her about the raw emotions she felt hearing the sound of a woman screaming followed by four gunshots the night Pistorius shot Steenkamp.

She told the prosecutor that she was haunted by the traumatizing sound of the woman’s screams and that the memory came back every time she took a shower.

“It was awful to hear the shouts before the shots,” she said.

Roux suggested that the screaming she heard was Pistorius, not Steenkamp, but over many hours of cross-examination, Burger insisted that she had heard a woman’s screams. He said she may have heard not shots, but the sound of a cricket bat as Pistorius broke down the door to get to Steenkamp, but she insisted she heard shots.

Burger said the final scream faded just after the fourth shot was fired.

Roux said he would call medical experts who will testify that Steenkamp, after being shot in the head, could not possibly have screamed because she would have had no cognitive function due to brain damage.

Pistorius wiped away tears as Steenkamp’s injuries were discussed.

Burger’s testimony, that she heard a woman screaming for help before the four shots, is incompatible with Pistorius’ story that all he heard that night was a bathroom window sliding open, and that he took it for an intruder, ran to the bathroom and fired through the toilet door in order to protect himself and Steenkamp.

Roux told Burger he had difficulty with her credibility and reliability, pounding her with questions for much of Monday and Tuesday morning. His at times aggressive cross-examination divided South Africans following the case on television and radio. and tweeting about it.

“So much respect for Michelle Burger,” tweeted Mike Skruv. But Alistair Grey said, “Personally looks like Roux has weakened Burger’s evidence,” adding the hashtags #heated #gluedtoTV.

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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