Pistorius asked friend to ‘take blame’ for gun shot in public

Defence seeks to undermine evidence of neighbours claiming they heard screams


Athlete Oscar Pistorius asked a friend to take the blame for him accidentally discharging a pistol under the table of a Johannesburg restaurant in January 2013, a month before he killed his girlfriend, his murder trial heard today.

Testifying for the prosecution against the South African Olympic and Paralympic track star, professional boxer Kevin Lerena described how he, Mr Pistorius and two others had been having dinner at Tashas restaurant when the gun went off.

Mr Lerena said one of the group, Darren Fresco, passed his pistol under the table to Mr Pistorius, telling him there was “one up” - an indication that a round was loaded in the chamber.

“A shot went off. Then there was just compelete silence,” Mr Lerena said. “I looked down at the floor and exactly where I looked down, where my foot was, there was a hole in the floor.

“I had a little graze on my toe, but I wasn’t hurt,” Mr Lerena added.

Mr Pistorius immediately apologised to his fellow diners and checked they had not been hurt, but then turned to Fresco and asked him to take responsibility, Mr Lerena said, testifying on the third day of Mr Pistorius’ murder trial in Pretoria.

“‘Please take the blame for me - there’s too much media hype around me’,” Mr Lerena quoted Mr Pistorius as saying. “When the restaurant owners came up, Darren took the blame.”

Mr Lerena, who goes by the ring name of “KO Kid”, was giving evidence in relation to a lesser charge brought against Mr Pistorius of discharging a weapon in a public place.

The main charge is that he murdered his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine’s Day 2013 by shooting her through a locked toilet door.

Mr Pistorius (27) has pleaded not guilty. He says he shot 29-year-old Ms Steenkamp by accident, fearing she was an intruder in his home.

The prosecution has sought to portray the running star, who had his disabled lower legs amputated as a baby and uses carbon fibre prosthetic “blades” to run, as a gun-obsessed hot-head.

Mr Pistorius has also pleaded not guilty to the Tashas gun offence charge, and to a similar charge of putting a bullet through the sun roof of a former girlfriend’s car in a separate incident.

Earlier, defence lawyers sought to undermine the evidence of a couple who say they heard screams and gunfire the night the Olympic athlete fatally shot his girlfriend.

Charl Johnson, a neighbour of the double-amputee runner, resumed his testimony on the third day of the trial after telling the court in Pretoria yesterday that he heard the cries of a terrified woman and shooting around the time Mr Pistorius killed Ms Steenkamp.

Mr Johnson’s wife Michelle Burger had given similar evidence and at one point broke down in tears because of what she said was the memory of the woman’s terrified screams.

Chief defence lawyer Barry Roux said there were differences between the statements Mr Johnson and Ms Burger gave to police after the shooting and evidence they gave in court.

Both the statements and the evidence shared similarities, Mr Roux said, implying that the couple contaminated their evidence by talking through what they were going to say. “You could just as well have stood together in the witness box,” Mr Roux said. “What do you say to that?”

That drew a caution from Judge Thokozile Masipa, who told the defence lawyer he had gone too far.

Mr Roux said crucial elements in their evidence were missing in their earlier comments to police, including statements that they heard a woman’s screams rising in anxiety and intensity and that they heard the woman’s voice “fading” after the last in a volley of gunshots.

Mr Johnson said he and his wife were more expressive while giving evidence in court than when providing information for a police document. “I would venture a guess that it’s the way you verbally tell the story,” he said. “There’s a lot more emotion involved ... whereas the statement is more factual.”

At the beginning of proceedings today, prosecutor Gerrie Nel said Mr Johnson’s telephone number had been read out in court yesterday. Mr Johnson then said he had since received a “large amount” of missed calls. He described one voicemail message as saying: “Why are you lying in court? You know Oscar didn’t kill Reeva. It’s not cool.”

A second witness at the trial yesterday described how she was kept from sleeping on the night the athlete shot his girlfriend dead through a closed toilet door, by sounds of fighting coming from his home.

The evidence given by Estelle van der Merwe is a further blow to the defence, as along with separate testimony given on Monday, it contradicts the athlete’s statement that it was “unfair and incorrect” to suggest he had a row with Reeva Steenkamp before he killed her.

The case has transfixed people around the world, and the proceedings are being broadcast on television, adding to the scrutiny of South Africa’s criminal justice system as well as the character of a globally admired athlete whose career peaked when he ran in the 2012 Olympics.

Mr Pistorius was born without fibula bones because of a congenital defect and his legs were amputated when he was 11 months old. He has run on carbon-fibre blades and was initially banned from competing against able-bodied peers because many argued that his blades gave him an unfair advantage. He was later cleared to compete. He is a multiple Paralympic medallist but he failed to win a medal at the London Olympics.