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Witness testimony continues on third day of Pistorius trial

© AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-03-05

Oscar Pistorius's murder trial in Pretoria, South Africa resumed Wednesday to hear further witness testimony alleging screams the night Reeva Steenkamp died, challenging the Paralympian’s defence against premeditated murder.

Pistorius, 27, a double amputee known as the "Blade Runner" for his carbon-fibre running blades, has pleaded not guilty to murder and three unrelated gun charges.

While admitting killing Steenkamp, the sprinter described it as a "tragic accident", denying murderous intent and saying "we were in a loving relationship".

If found guilty of premeditated murder, Pistorius faces 25 years in South Africa's notoriously brutal jails and an abrupt end to his glittering sporting career.

In vivid testimony that cast doubt on the Paralympian's claims of a "tragic accident", three state witnesses told the court Tuesday that they heard a commotion then gunshots on Valentine's Day 2013 at Pistorius's home. This testimony and cross examination is set to continue Wednesday.

Contradict Pistorius account

The trio's accounts directly contradict Pistorius's claim that he shot his girlfriend, a 29-year-old model, through a locked toilet door after mistaking her for an intruder.

"When I'm in the shower, I relive her shouts. The terrifying screams," university lecturer Michelle Burger said on Tuesday, her voice cracking with emotion as she was unable to hold back the tears.

Burger's husband, Charl Johnson, also took the stand, telling judge Thokozile Masipa that a woman's screams woke him up and that he ran to his balcony, found 177 meters (193 yards) from Pistorius's home.

Johnson is set to retake the stand on the third day of proceedings and face cross examination.

"At that point the fear and intensity of her voice escalated and it was clear that this person's life was in danger," he said on Tuesday.

"That's when the first shots were fired," although Johnson could not recall how many.

Another neighbour, second witness Estelle van der Merwe, who lives less than 100 metres (yards) away from Pistorius's home, also told the court she heard arguing coming from the house.

"I woke up in the morning at 1:56am to the sounds of someone talking loudly and fighting," she told the court. "It lasted about an hour."

Later she recalled waking up to the sound of loud bangs.

Both Johnson and Burger also said they heard a male person shout for help, a point that was seized upon by the defence as evidence Pistorius was calling for help.

Neighbour Michelle Burger speculated that perhaps the voice was that of Pistorius ridiculing Steenkamp’s calls for help.
“Was it a mockery? I don’t know. I’m not Mr. Pistorius,” she said.

'She could not have screamed'

In the face of the prosecution's onslaught, Chief defence lawyer Barry Roux spent almost four hours Tuesday trying to pick apart the witnesses' account of events, according to a FRANCE 24 journalist.

In terse exchanges, he accused Burger of rejecting Pistorius's account out of hand, moulding her testimony to fit media reports and jumping to conclusions.

"You made up your mind that his version could not be," said Roux, claiming Pistorius sounds like a women when he screams and that the bangs heard were him trying to break down the toilet door with a bat.

"You interpreted cricket bat shots to be gunshots and screaming to be a woman and not Oscar. If you didn't do that, his version would make sense."

Tensions in court were heightened when a statement was read explaining the violent nature of Steenkamp's death.

As Roux claimed a gunshot wound to the head would have made it impossible for Steenkamp to scream, Pistorius bowed his head and folded his hands behind his neck.

"The person with that brain damage will have no cognitive response," continued Roux. "It cannot be. She could not have screamed."

Prosecution lawyer Gerrie Nel interjected to say it was the last of four shots that struck Steenkamp's head, the first three hitting her right side, the wall and her shoulder.

Meanwhile, across the court, one of Steenkamp's relatives touched a photo of the budding reality TV star, as a man put his arm around her.

The trial is expected to last three weeks.

Media coverage

Amid the blanket media coverage of the trial, a South African TV channel has apologised for broadcasting an image of a witness in the trial after the woman requested that she not be shown.

News channel eNCA says it used the picture of state witness Michelle Burger in a broadcast while she was giving testimony Tuesday. The channel says the photo was “sourced” from the website of the University of Pretoria, where Burger works as a lecturer.

It said it was a “bad judgment call” to use the photo and apologised to the court, the parties and to Burger for an “unfortunate incident.”

A judge ruled last week that images of some witnesses could not be shown if they objected, as Burger did. The trial judge ordered an investigation.

“I am warning the media,” the judge said, “if you do not behave, you are not going to be treated with soft gloves by this court.”

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS and AP)
 

Date created : 2014-03-05

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