Witness tells of blood-curdling screams as Pistorius trial begins
Paralympian pleads not guilty to murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp
Oscar Pistorius and June Steenkamp (second from right), the mother of Reeva Steencamp, at the North Gauteng High Court on Monday for the opening day of his trial. Photograph: Getty Images
The Oscar Pistorius murder trial delivered high drama on its opening day yesterday, with the first witness describing how she awoke to hear “blood-curdling screams”, “calls for help” and “four gunshots” ringing out from the athlete’s home.
Mr Pistorius, a successful Paralympic sprinter, rose to fame in 2012 when he competed against able-bodied athletes at the London Olympics and reached the semi-finals in his event.
He is accused of the premeditated murder of his girlfriend, law graduate and model Reeva Steenkamp, as well as of illegal possession of a firearm and ammunition, and recklessly discharging a firearm in public.
Michelle Burger, a lecturer who lives at the Silver Stream estate in Pretoria, which borders Silver Woods, where Mr Pistorius lived, told the North Gauteng High Court that she and her husband woke just after 3am on February 14th last year to a woman’s cry for help.
Initially she said they thought the sounds coming from the neighbouring estate 177 metres away were of a violent break-in, and she urged her husband to call security to investigate what was happening. She then heard more shouts from the woman, she said.
“She screamed terribly and called for help. Then I heard a man calling for help three times,” said Ms Burger, whose testimony was translated from Afrikaans into English.
She said her husband, Charl Johnson, heard the screams as well and went to the balcony to investigate. “I told my husband it doesn’t help if he stands on the balcony, he must go back into the room and call security,” she said.
After Ms Burger’s husband called security, she heard a woman scream again. “The screams were more intense. It was like a climax,” she said. “The fear in her voice was horrific.” Then came the sound of gunshots. “Just after her screams, I heard four shots,” she said. “Bang . . . bang, bang, bang. It was very traumatic for me. You could hear that it was blood-curdling screams.”
The dramatic evidence was delivered after a slow start to the case that has gripped the attention of the world because of the identity of the murder accused. The proceedings, scheduled to begin at 10am, did not open until 11.30am because of problems finding an interpreter.
In his opening address prosecutor Gerrie Nel said that because there were no eye witnesses to the incident, the state’s case would be “based on circumstantial evidence . . . and on what the neighbours heard . . . and lead ballistic and forensic evidence”.
The state has listed 107 witnesses, which leads many observers to believe the case could drag on a lot longer than the scheduled three to six weeks.
In a statement read out by his lawyer Mr Pistorius denied all the charges against him. His legal team will argue that he mistook Ms Steenkamp for an intruder when he shot her three times through a closed en suite toilet door next to his bedroom.
Mr Pistorius’s lawyer, Kenny Oldwage, portrayed the state’s allegations as an unwarranted character assassination, and said the state’s claim that his client shot Ms Steenkamp during an argument was “unfair and incorrect”. “No evidence can be tendered that I fired the shots because of the argument,” Mr Oldwage said, reading his client’s statement to the court.
Mr Pistorius rarely showed emotion and kept his composure throughout the day.
At her request, Ms Burger’s testimony, in front of a courtroom packed full of journalists and members of the victim’s and the accused’s families, was not televised live, but the audio was broadcast.
After lunch lawyers for Mr Pistorius cross-examined Ms Burger, questioning her on why her version of events differed in places to that of her husband’s, who thought he might have heard five or six shots.
Senior counsel Barry Roux for Mr Pistorius then went on to say his client screams like a woman when he is anxious. “You know . . . if Mr Pistorius is very anxious, if he screams, it sounds like a woman’s voice,” he said. Mr Roux said witnesses could testify to this trait of Mr Pistorius’s.
The trial continues today.