x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Oscar Pistorius neighbour describes ‘blood curdling’ scream

Pistorius, whose trial is being broadcast live around the world, faces a life sentence if convicted of the fatal Valentine’s Day shooting of model and reality television star Reeva Steenkamp a year ago.

South African amputee Olympian sprinter Oscar Pistorius looks on just after arriving inside the High Court in Pretoria on March 3, for the opening day of his murder trial. AFP
South African amputee Olympian sprinter Oscar Pistorius looks on just after arriving inside the High Court in Pretoria on March 3, for the opening day of his murder trial. AFP

PRETORIA // South African paralympian star Oscar Pistorius pleaded not guilty on Monday to murdering his girlfriend as his trial opened with a neighbour’s account of “blood-curdling” screams on the night of the killing.

Mr Pistorius, whose trial is being broadcast live around the world, faces a life sentence if convicted of the fatal Valentine’s Day shooting of model and reality television star Reeva Steenkamp a year ago.

After a state prosecutor charged that Mr Pistorius “unlawfully and intentionally did kill” Steenkamp, he entered a plea of “not guilty, my lady”.

Mr Pistorius, 27, a double amputee sporting hero known as the “Blade Runner” for his carbon-fibre running blades, also pleaded not guilty to three unrelated gun charges.

A single judge, Thokozile Masipa, is presiding over the case.

In a statement read out by his lawyer Kenny Oldwage, Mr Pistorius described her death as a “tragic accident” saying he had mistaken his 29-year-old lover for an intruder.

He admitted killing Steenkamp, but denied murderous intent. “This allegation is denied in the strongest terms,” he said. “We were in a loving relationship.”

The first prosecution witness to take the stand, Michelle Burger, said she and her husband were awoken at around 3am by “blood-curdling screams” coming from the Pistorius home in an upmarket Johannesburg gated community.

“She screamed terribly and she yelled for help,” the university economist said. “It was something you can’t explain to someone else, how anxious those screams were.”

“Just after her screams, I heard shots, four shots,” she said, describing one clear shot then three clustered together.

“Bang... bang, bang, bang.”

“I heard petrified screaming before the gunshots, and just after the gunshots,” she said when pressed by Mr Pistorius’s lawyer.

Advocate Barry Roux challenged Ms Burger over potential inconsistencies, asking in particular why she heard four gunshots but her husband, who is yet to testify, reported hearing five or six.

The trial was adjourned until Tuesday.

Monday marked the first time the victim’s mother June came face-to-face with Mr Pistorius since the killing.

“I want to look at Oscar, really look him in the eyes, and see for myself the truth about what he did to Reeva,” she said.

Further down from her on the wood-panelled bench sat Mr Pistorius’s brother Carl, sister Aimee and a handful other relatives.

The state is seeking to prove that Mr Pistorius killed Steenkamp in a rage after the couple quarrelled in the early hours of February 14, 2013.

The athlete, the first double amputee to compete against able-bodied athletes at the London 2012 Olympics, will also be asked why he allegedly told security guards at his luxury estate that everything was fine when they phoned after hearing gunshots.

In a bid to illustrate a history of reckless behaviour with firearms, the state claims that Mr Pistorius on two occasions fired a pistol in public, once through the sunroof of a moving car and then at a busy restaurant.

The state has an exhaustive list of 107 witnesses that includes the defendant’s former girlfriends, though it is unlikely everyone will be called to testify.

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

The state has already admitted that ballistic tests suggest he might not have been wearing his prostheses when he fired the shots that killed Steenkamp, which removes a key argument for premeditation.

Forty national and an equal number of international journalists have been accredited to cover the case from inside the courtroom.

A South African satellite network has set up a dedicated channel to cover the trial, parts of which are being broadcast live on television, while all of it is available in audio.

* AFP