Oscar Pistorius trial: The week he went from a hero of his nation and the world, to a gun-loving hothead
It has been a week of compelling testimony in Court D at Pretoria’s North Gauteng High Court. Tom Peck recaps the key pieces of evidence
Only Oscar Pistorius knows exactly what happened in his Pretoria apartment on the night he shot and killed Reeva Steenkamp, but a week into the so-called ‘trial of the century’, his version of events stands in marked contrast to what his neighbours are convinced they heard.
For five days, the talk in Court D at Pretoria’s North Gauteng High Court has been dominated by gunshots, a cricket bat struck against a meranti wood door, and a woman’s screams. But will these noises conspire to vindicate Oscar Pistorius’s version of events, or condemn him as a liar and a killer? That is the question to be determined by a single judge.
On the evidence to date, Pistorius’s version of events does not match what his neighbours think they heard. But what his neighbours heard doesn’t match several of the near incontrovertible facts of the case.
The athlete’s case is that he mistook his girlfriend for an intruder, hiding behind the bathroom door. He shot through the door four times, went back to bed, saw Reeva was not there, then bashed down the door with a cricket bat to find her dying.
But, under the most intense questioning from Pistorius’s terrifying defence counsel Barry Roux, Pistorius’s neighbours, Dr Michelle Burger, an academic at the University of Pretoria, and her husband Charl Johnson, an IT worker, would not shift one iota from their story. That they were woken in the night by the sound of a woman’s ‘blood-curdling screams’, then the sound of a man screaming for help, then the sound of gunfire, and more screams from a woman.
Why would a man scream for help before the shots had been fired? Dr Burger contested it was perhaps “a mockery”. Pistorius covered his ears while his counsel pointedly stated that the medical evidence shows head injuries to Ms Steenkamp so extensive she would have had “no thought process, no cognitive function” and yet the neighbour claims to have heard her screams, from behind a locked toilet door, 177 metres away.
Could they have slept through the gunfire? Could the woman’s screams in fact have been Oscar’s “high pitched screams?” At one point Mr Roux has suggested we will hear from an expert witness over the matter of Pistorius’s woman-like screams. Could the gunshot they thought they heard have been Pistorius breaking down the door with a cricket bat? “I know what gunshot sounds like,” Dr Burger said. “What I heard was gunshot.”
One person who has heard Pistorius shouting is his ex-girlfriend, Samantha Taylor, a 20-year-old student and part-time model. “I have heard him scream a few times,” she said yesterday. “It’s not true [that he sounds like a woman]. He sounds like a man.”
She has heard Oscar scream at “my sister, my best friend, another friend, and his best friend”. In two moments of particularly low drama, she also broke down twice when attempting to speak of how the pair broke up owing to Pistorius’s infidelity - with Reeva Steenkamp (a suggestion Pistorius denies, and we may yet see the angry emails that prove it).
Ms Taylor was in the car when Pistorius laughingly offloaded his pistol through the open sunroof, in anger over having been stopped by police for speeding. With them that day, on their way back from the Vaal River near Johannesburg was his friend Darren Fresco, the same man who passed him a gun under a table in a restaurant a month before the killing, only for it to accidentally discharge and very nearly shoot their professional boxer friend Kevin Lerena in the foot. “I was in complete shock,” Mr Lerena said when giving evidence. “I looked down and there was a hole in the floor right where my foot had been.” Fragments of marble had cut his foot.
Pistorius has pleaded not guilty to both these firearms offences. The state has made him appear reckless and trigger happy. But it is a long way from there to intentionally killing his girlfriend.
If he did do that, it was made harrowingly clear how much he immediately regretted it. Another neighbour, Dr Johan Stipp a radiologist, has told of how he arrived to find Oscar praying over Reeva’s “mortally wounded” body, of how he was “screaming that he would dedicate his life to God if he would let her live.”
“I thought she was a burglar, and I shot her,” Pistorius told him, crying.
More witnesses who will attest to Pistorius’s jealous nature and furious temper are expected next week, not least the former footballer Mark Bachelor, who claims to have heard the athlete threaten to break an ex-boyfriend’s legs. We may even hear from Pistorius himself.
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