I thought Reeva was in bed when I fired shots, says Oscar Pistorius
Independent Africa correspondent Daniel Howden witnesses a dramatic opening to South Africa's most compelling case since end of apartheid
It was the account everybody had been waiting to hear since the first confused reports of a killing emerged on Valentine’s Day. That of Oscar Pistorius, double amputee, Olympian, hero and now accused murderer. When the words did come, in a crowded and chaotic courtroom in Pretoria, they were voiced by Barry Roux, his lead defence attorney, who promised to show that his client had “no intention” of murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
Reading out an affidavit from the athlete – unexpected at such an early stage in proceedings – the court heard that Mr Pistorius had spent a quiet night with Ms Steenkamp at his luxury home in a secure estate on the outskirts of Pretoria. She had arrived early in the evening with a Valentine’s gift and the couple had enjoyed a normal evening – she did some yoga while he watched television, then they both turned in for the night.
In the early hours of the morning, the runner awoke and went out to the balcony, without strapping on his prosthetic legs, to recover a fan, according to the affidavit. On coming back in, “I heard a noise in the bathroom and realised that someone was in [there]”, the sworn statement said. “I felt a sense of terror rushing over me.”
Always wary of the threat of burglars he moved back inside, collected the 9mm handgun he kept under his bed in case of intruders and went in to the bathroom without switching on the lights. There he heard more noises coming from the toilet cubicle.
“As I did not have my prosthetic legs on and felt extremely vulnerable, I knew I had to protect Reeva and myself. I believed that when the intruder/intruders came out of the toilet we would be in grave danger.”
The 26-year-old then fired shots at the door and called out to Ms Steenkamp, whom he claims he thought was still sleeping, to telephone the police. Only when he found the bed empty, he said, did it dawn on him that he may have shot his own girlfriend. The Paralympian returned to the cubicle but couldn’t open it, according to the statement. He then “screamed for help” from the balcony, strapped on his legs and went back and forced the door open. Inside he found his girlfriend slumped over but alive, telephoned for help and took her downstairs. “I tried to render the assistance to Reeva that I could, but she died in my arms.”
The impassioned affidavit was the climax of a day of weeping, tension and revelation that marked the authentic beginning of what is shaping up to be South Africa’s most compelling trial since the end of apartheid. The drama in Pretoria hinged on the magistrate’s acceptance of the prosecution’s argument that the disgraced Olympian could be charged with premeditated murder. On hearing the news the sprinter hunched forward in the dock, sobbing uncontrollably. At the same time, news reached the gallery that the coffin of his dead girlfriend had arrived at her funeral 600 miles away in her home town of Port Elizabeth.
Dressed in a grey suit and flanked by his father, brother and one of his sisters, the most recognisable figure in South African sport began to sob and shake. At one point the magistrate paused the hearing, asking Mr Pistorius to “compose” himself and warning that he did not want him to leave the court without having understood what had taken place.
His shaven-headed brother frequently lent forward to put a consolatory hand on the accused’s shoulder, while his sister, Amy Pistorius, also broke down. In a sign of how this case has gripped the life of the country, two representatives from the ANC Women’s League sat on the bench next to the Pistorius family. One of them, Sally Nkosi Peterson, said that the former national hero, who was just a few feet away from her, should be crushed by the “iron fist” of justice.
For much of the morning the proceedings in Court C had been almost philosophical as the prosecution and defence sparred over the nature of premeditation. They then burst into life as the magistrate, Desmond Nair, said he could not rule out the notion that the killing had been pre-planned. That decision dramatically raised the bar for the defence’s application for bail as it put the offence into Schedule 6 under South African law, which calls for a minimum life sentence. It also handed the first round in what will be a marathon legal battle to the prosecutor, Gerrie Nel.
Mr Nel had earlier laid out what he called the “cold facts” of the case. He said that it was clear that Ms Steenkamp had spent the evening with the accused, citing her overnight bag and vanity case found at the scene.
He then described the distance of seven metres between the defendant’s bed and the small cubicle toilet in which the 29-year-old model had died. Four shots had been fired, three of them hitting Ms Steenkamp, he said.
“There was no possible support for the claim that it was a burglar,” Mr Nel said. “He armed himself, walked seven metres and shot a defenceless person inside a small space where there was no possible escape.”
The prosecution finished the first of what will be many days in court with a series of affidavits from the friends of the accused which sought to establish that the couple’s relationship had been happy and healthy. Mr Pistorius treated his new girlfriend like “gold” and he had told one friend that the reality show contestant might be “the one”.
Another mutual friend said that Ms Steenkamp would have considered marrying the runner if he were to ask. The only darker hints came inadvertently as one character witness said that “when Oscar liked a girl it was no-holds barred”.
At the front of the court, among the clerks and lawyers, sat consultant criminologist Laurie Pieters. The expert profiler has harboured her own doubts about the “Blade Runner” and said she has been convinced something was wrong with him since his outburst at last summer’s Paralympics. “Until now there have been no consequences for him when he does something wrong, or gets violent.”
Mr Pistorius is expected to find out later today whether the first consequence of the death of Ms Steenkamp is a prolonged stay in prison awaiting trial, or if his lawyers will prove the “exceptional circumstances” now required to have him post bail.
Case for defence: Disability is a factor
There is no escaping the significance of Oscar Pistorius’s missing legs, even now that he has stopped running and started defending himself against a charge of premeditated murder. The fear that led him to fire four shots into a toilet cubicle killing his girlfriend was based, he claimed, on the absence of his prosthetics. “I felt trapped... and I have limited mobility on my stumps,” he told the court.
Mr Pistorius’s affidavit surprised many who heard it as it explained how the athlete could move around on the stumps he has had since his lower legs were removed when he was just 11-months old.
The missing legs may become a factor as he seeks to convince the magistrate to let him post bail. Should his application be refused, Mr Pistorius can expect to be sent to the notoriously rough Pretoria Central Prison, where he could spend months, if not years, waiting for his trial to come to court.
There are concerns as to whether his disability might make it impossible to humanely hold him in prison, where his prosthetics could be removed, forcing him instead to use a wheelchair.
Demands for punishment amid the grief at Reeva’s funeral
Mourners gathered to pay a tearful farewell to Reeva Steenkamp.
A hearse took Ms Steenkamp’s body to the Victoria Park Crematorium in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth for a private funeral attended by more than 100 relatives and friends.
“It was a total shock. It is only sinking in right now,” a former classmate, Bongiwe Gaxamba, 29, said, describing Ms Steenkamp’s death.
Amid the grief, some demanded punishment for Oscar Pistorius. “Without a doubt he’s a danger to the public,” Gavin Venter, who worked for Ms Steenkamp’s father, said. “He’ll be a danger to witnesses. He must stay in jail. He’s already shown how dangerous he can be for what he did to Reeva. She was an angel.” Reuters
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