PRETORIA, South Africa — When South African Olympian Oscar Pistorius arrived home on the eve of Valentine’s Day 2013, his dogs were running around, his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, was cooking dinner and a gift was waiting for him.
Steenkamp told him to wait until morning to open it. But within hours Pistorius had fatally shot her after he fired four bullets through a door to a toilet, thinking she was an intruder, the athlete testified Tuesday during his murder trial at Pretoria’s High Court.
Pistorius, in his second day on the witness stand, said he had heard the sound of the window opening in the bathroom, a few yards from his bedroom where he had been asleep with Steenkamp, and thought someone was trying to get into the house.
“That’s the moment that everything changed,” he said.
Pistorius’ words tumbled out rapidly, his voice frequently breaking, and tears pouring down his cheeks. When he described finding Steenkamp shot, the 27-year-old Pistorius broke down into loud sobs. During a brief adjournment, his sister Aimee ran across the courtroom to get to where he was slumped, wailing in the witness box, and hugged him.
Judge Thokozile Masipa ultimately adjourned proceedings until Wednesday, after defense lawyer Barry Roux said Pistorius was so emotionally devastated that it would be irresponsible to ask him to continue.
Roux criticized police ballistics expert Chris Mangena in an exchange after the adjournment, saying, “If the state incorrectly prosecuted an innocent young man, then you have ruined him forever,” according to eNCA news.
Pistorius, a double amputee who used prosthetic devices while competing in the 2012 Summer Olympics, has pleaded not guilty to murder in the death of Steenkamp, 29, and not guilty to two charges of recklessly discharging a gun, and to one charge of unlicensed possession of .38 ammunition.
Prosecutors contend that Pistorius intentionally killed Steenkamp. The trial, which began March 3, has included 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.
In court Tuesday, Pistorius denied ever firing a gun out of the sunroof of a car, despite testimony of two witnesses, and said a friend, Darren Fresco, handed him an unsafe loaded gun in a restaurant in 2013, which the athlete accidentally discharged. He said he kept .38 bullets safe for his father, not his own use.
Pistorius’ testimony began with the happy story of how Pistorius met Steenkamp, a model and a reality television show participant, and was soon “besotted” with her. He read through many phone messages in which the two sent love, kisses, smiley faces and messages of support to each other, often several times a day.
He described a high-pressure existence: He had a heavy training schedule and a strict dietary regime. She was occasionally insecure about her appearance and had financial pressures, and struggled with the attention she got for dating him, not all of it good. He said she blamed a Twitter hate campaign against her on his ex-girlfriend, Samantha Taylor. Taylor, who earlier testified that Pistorius fired a weapon out of a car in 2012, tweeted Tuesday, “Last lies you get to tell. You better make it worth your while.” She soon afterward deleted the tweet.
Pistorius said he and Steenkamp sometimes quarreled, but quickly settled their rows. He was sometimes insecure and jealous, including one such occasion when she tried to tickle his neck to cheer him up and he snapped at her. On that occasion, “I wasn’t kind to her like I should have been,” he told the court.
The night of the shooting was hot and muggy and the air conditioning wasn’t working, Pistorius testified. He woke in the early hours of the morning. Steenkamp was also awake.
Pistorius testified that he got up in the pitch black room, shifted two fans, closed a door, and covered the only source of light, an LED light on his amplifier, with a pair of her jeans, when he heard the bathroom window open, unaware that Steenkamp had gone into the bathroom.
“I think initially I just froze. I heard this noise. I interpreted it as someone climbing into the bathroom,” he told the court, adding he was unsure whether there was one intruder or more. “The first thing in my mind was that I needed to arm myself, that I needed to protect Reeva and ... get my gun.”
Pistorius said he entered the passage to the bathroom without wearing his prosthetic legs and started shouting for burglars to get out of the house and for Steenkamp to get down on the floor. He said he heard noises from the toilet, which seemed to confirm that there was an intruder in the house. “Before I knew it I’d fired four shots at the door,” he said.
Pistorius testified that he searched for Steenkamp, but that he could not find her and she did not respond to his calls.
“I think it was at that point, My Lady, that it first dawned upon me that it could be Reeva that was in the bathroom or toilet,” he said, addressing the judge.
He said he grabbed a cricket bat, went back into the bathroom, kicked the door then and hit the door three times with the bat. The first blow left a small hole. Then he managed to knock lose a panel, wrenched it out and threw it on the floor, struggling to get the door open.
“I saw the key inside and unlocked the door and flung it open. I said, ‘Oh Reeva,’ and I cried.” He said he sat over Steenkamp, sobbing.
Pistorius said it was months before he opened Steenkamp’s Valentine’s Day gift to him: a frame with four photographs of himself and Steenkamp, and a Valentine’s card.