PRETORIA, South Africa -- Olympian Oscar Pistorius made a tearful apology to the family of his girlfriend Monday as he stood trial for fatally shooting her in the early hours of Valentine’s Day last year.
Pistorius took the stand to tell the court his version of what happened that night. Courtroom benches were packed with supporters of both the athlete and his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
Pistorius’ almost-whispered apology was so quiet that Judge Thokozile Masipa had to tell him to speak up.
“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,” he said, adding that it is the first thing that comes into his mind when he wakes up.
“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.
Pistorius 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.
Pistorius has pleaded not guilty to the murder of Steenkamp, claiming he shot her accidently after mistaking her for an intruder. He has also pleaded not guilty to two charges of recklessly discharging a gun, and to one charge of unlicensed possession of ammunition.
His lawyer opened the defense case Monday with testimony from a pathologist and from Pistorius himself.
Pistorius told the court he had been on anti-depressants since soon after the shooting and that he also needed medication because he couldn’t sleep.
“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.
He said he wanted nothing to do with guns any more, and slept with a security guard at his door. He sometimes gets panic attacks and one night had to hide in a cupboard because he couldn’t calm himself down, he told the court.
“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.
Pistorius described growing up in a loving home although his parents divorced when he was 6 years old and he rarely saw his father.
He was born without fibula bones in his legs, and his feet were amputated as a baby, but he said his mother treated him the same as his two siblings.
“If I fell, she left me to get up for myself. She didn’t baby me. She treated me exactly the same as my brother and sister.” He described occasionally being bullied at school.
“My family always believed in standing up for yourself and standing up for what you believe in. At the end of the day you don’t come crying to your parents.”
He said he once got into a fight with a boy who tore his shirt, ripping off the buttons.
“I stood up for myself and I got into a physical altercation with the other kid,” he testified, saying he was called into the school headmaster’s office to be punished. His mother arrived at the school and told the headmaster he shouldn’t be punished for standing up for himself, he said.
Pistorius said his family grew up in an area with a lot of crime, and that his mother, who died suddenly when he was 15, was always very fearful.
“She kept her firearm just under her pillow in a padded bag,” he said. Sometimes when she was afraid, he said, she would call her children into her room to be with her at night.
He told the story of his athletic career and of a boating accident that nearly killed him in 2009. He said he had to have more than 170 stitches in his face after a boat he was driving hit a submerged jetty. Pistorius said he couldn’t see because of sun shining on the water, but that he had not been drinking.
He said the accident and false allegations in the media that he was drunk affected him profoundly.
“I became fearful. I became quite withdrawn,” he said.
Pistorius told the court he had little balance standing on his stumps without prosthetic legs, and that his dog could knock him over.
“The right stump is about a cemtimeter longer than the left. I can’t place weight on my left stump when I walk without my prosthetic legs. I don’t have balance as such,” he said, explaining that he needed surgery to improve his ability to balance.
Earlier, Pistorius’ defense attorneys called a pathologist to testify that Steenkamp may not have had time to scream when the athlete shot and killed her.
Jan Botha, a former government pathologist in two South African provinces, said the bullets could have been fired in the space of four seconds, meaning that Steenkamp wouldn’t have had the time to scream before she was struck in the head, losing consciousness.
Part of the prosecution’s case rests on testimony from five neighbors who say they heard a woman screaming the night Pistorius shot Steenkamp. The defense has argued that only Pistorius screamed after the shooting.
“She may have been frozen with fear for a second or two,” Botha said, concluding there would have been a delay of about two seconds before she began to scream -- by which time she would have been struck in the head.
“If they [the shots] were fired over four seconds, I don’t think she would have had any time to scream. I think there would have been panic, confusion,” he said.
But he acknowledged under cross-examination by the prosecution that if Steenkamp was mortally afraid in the moments before she was shot, she likely would have cried out.
“If she was in mortal fear, it’s more likely she would have screamed,” he said. “If there was an interval of several seconds between the shots, I think she may well have had a chance to cry out.”
Pistorius wept during the pathologist’s testimony on Steenkamp’s wounds, as a close-up photograph depicting a bruise on her back was projected in the courtroom. He also vomited into a green plastic bucket. During a tea break, the athlete was hunched, sobbing loudly, with his brother Carl and sister Aimee at his side, hugging him.
Botha said he was unable to state the order in which the bullets were fired, because he was not a ballistics expert. However, he testified that he believed Steenkamp was struck in the hip first, and fell backward. She was then struck in the arm, hand and head, but he said he was uncertain of the order the bullets struck her.
Botha admitted that when he made his findings, he did not consider bullet holes in the door of the bathroom where Steenkamp was shot, only the position of the wounds on the body. He said it was almost impossible, in retrospect, to reconstruct the position of the body.