Oscar Pistorius trial: The most harrowing day so far as athlete breaks down in the witness box describing the night Reeva Steenkamp died

Trial adjourned as court rules accused is in no state to continue

Pretoria

Primeval howls reverberated around a harrowed and transfixed court room as Oscar Pistorius tried but ultimately failed to describe the panic stricken moments that ended the life of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, and changed his life forever.

“She wasn’t breathing!” he said, or rather wailed, of the moment he finally discovered her body, slumped on the toilet floor, before his head crashed into his hands, and he slumped forward, emitting long harrowing moans that called forth his lawyers, his tear-strewn family and his psychologist, who rushed to the witness box and moved in a flurry around him. The court was adjourned, temporarily at first, eventually for the day, when it was clear the accused was in no state to continue.

It has taken five and a half weeks to reach only Day 17 of the Paralympic Champion’s murder trial. It was, by some margin, the most dramatic and traumatic so far.

The broad outline of what Pistorius claims happened in his home in the early hours of Valentine’s Day last year is well known - that he mistook the sound of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in his locked toilet cubicle for a potentially volatile intruder, and fired four shots through the door, that would turn out to be fatal.

It is a story seemingly riddled with inconsistency and unlikelihood, but the new details that were revealed as a deeply distressed Pistorius recounted events at great length were as compelling to hear as they were upsetting.

Ms Steenkamp was awake, he said, when in the middle of the night, walking on his stumps, he brought two fans in from the balcony. They pair had just spoken.

“I heard the window opening in the bathroom,” he said. The sliding window hit against the edge, indicating it could open no further. “That is the moment that everything changed.”

As he spoke he was not wearing his now customary dark suit and tie, but rather a sports top and shorts. Moments before, he had removed his prosthetic legs, revealed his stumps to the court, and walked briefly in a line, next to the same bathroom door, which has been exhibited in court for more than a month now, to demonstrate his poor balance and mobility whilst on them.

This was the man, the Blade Runner, who so memorably came flying around the top bend of the London Olympic track and into the history books two summers ago. Yet his legs are skinny taper, almost to a point. He moved like a new born deer.

“I froze. I didn't know what to do,” he said, holding back tears. “I was looking down the passage scared at the person was going to come out. I grabbed firearm from underneath the bed. I wanted to get back to where passage was. To get myself between the person or people, and Reeva. I whispered for Reeva to get down. I shouted for the people to get out. I shouted for Reeva to phone the police.

“I made my way down the passage. I was constantly aware this person could come at me any time. I didn't have my legs on. Then I stopped shouting. I was worried that if I shouted the person would know exactly where I was. That I could get shot.

“Then I heard a noise from inside the toilet that I perceived to be somebody coming out of the toilet. Before I knew it, I had fired four shots at the door."

"I wasn't sure where to point the firearm," he said. "My eyes were going between the windows and the toilet. I stood for some time.

"I just stayed where I was and kept on screaming. Then I heard a noise from inside the toilet that I perceived to be somebody coming out of the toilet. Before I knew it, I had fired four shots at the door."

At this point, he said, his ears were ringing, and he couldn’t hear anything. “I didn’t know if someone else would come in through the window to attack Reeva and I. I called out to Reeva, but I couldn’t hear anything.”

On returning to the pitch dark bedroom, where the blackout curtains were closed, he wondered if Reeva was hiding, and “I ran my hand along the length of the curtain to see if she was behind there.”

Reeva Steenkamp’s mother June looked on, stony-faced and transfixed, as he told the court how he hit the door with a cricket bat, desperate to see inside.

“I screamed Help! Help! Help!,” he said. "I don't think I've ever screamed like that. I was crying out for Reeva. I was crying out for the Lord to help me. I didn't want to believe it could be Reeva inside the toilet.

"I hit the door and a small piece opened. All I wanted to do was look inside and see if it was Reeva.”

A long plank of the door came away, which Pistorius threw into the bathroom.

“I lent over the partition. I saw the key on the floor. I unlocked the door. I flung it open. I sat over Reeva and I cried. I don't know how long I was there for.”

It was then that he tried to say she wasn’t breathing, but failed, and the howling began, and the court adjourned.

If the grief and the remorse were an act, Pistorius is a talent indeed, but grief and remorse do not necessarily intimate guilt or innocence.

On Wednesday, the State Prosecutor Gerrie Nel is likely to begin cross-examining Mr Pistorius, and he is likely to show no remorse himself, in focusing on the inconsistencies in the Pistorius account that still arguably remain. Why are his neighbours convinced they heard a woman screaming? Why had he fired four shots through the door “before he knew it”, and heard no sound from Reeva to intimate she had been shot, first in the hip, and then the arm, before the fatal headshot?

After five at times painstaking weeks, there can be no doubt that the rather crassly dubbed ‘trial of the century’ has finally reached the heart of the matter.

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