He did not look at the lawyers, the sea of faces in the public gallery or the red-robed judge who will decide his guilt. When Oscar Pistorius got the chance to explain himself in person after almost 14 months of silence, he turned to address the woman whose daughter he killed.
The Paralympian’s voice quivered, cracked and trailed off as he offered a very public apology to his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp’s mother. But if Pistorius, who went on to tell the court about his religious faith, was making a plea for absolution, it did not appear to move June Steenkamp, who remained impassive.
This intense, extraordinary moment between two people who had never met before the murder trial came yesterday as the defence opened its case at the high court in Pretoria, South Africa. Pistorius admits shooting Steenkamp through a toilet door on Valentine's day last year but insists he mistook her for an intruder.
"My lady, may I please start my evidence by tendering an apology," the 27-year-old asked judge Thokozile Masipa in a tremulous, almost boyish voice that was barely audible. "I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to Mr and Mrs Steenkamp, to Reeva's family, to those of you who knew her who are here today."
Judge Masipa intervened tenderly: “Mr Pistorius, I don’t like doing this to you but I can hardly hear you.” Pistorius responded softly: “I beg your pardon, my lady, I’ll speak up. I’d like to apologise and say that there’s not a moment and there hasn’t been a moment since this tragedy happened that I haven’t thought about your family. I wake up every morning and you’re the first people I think of, the first people I pray for. I can’t imagine the pain and the sorrow and the emptiness that I’ve caused you and your family.”
Fighting back tears, he continued: "I was simply trying to protect Reeva. I can promise that when she went to bed that night she felt loved. I've tried to put my words on paper many, many times to write to you but no words will ever suffice."
Highly unusual move
It was, legal experts said, a highly unusual move. As Pistorius struggled to get out the words there was a tense silence in the courtroom except for the ripple of typing on journalists’ laptops. His sister Aimee looked distraught, her mouth open a little, her eyes filled with tears.
June Steenkamp has previously criticised Pistorius for failing to acknowledge her on the first day of the trial and seemed unmoved by his appeal. A source close to her said: “He did say through his lawyer he was going to apologise so she knew it was coming. She steeled herself but it was tough on her: I could see she was stressed out. It’s amazing how she holds it together and shows no emotion.”
The source added: “Reeva was such a shining light and to take her away was so cruel, so an apology is the least her mother expected.”
It was hard to reconcile Pistorius's despondent figure with the "blade runner" who thrilled stadiums around the world and became the first amputee to run in the Olympics.
'State of terror'
Pistorius described the devastating effect the shooting has had on his life. He said he had been on anti-depressants and sleeping pills because of his disturbed state of mind.
“I’m scared to sleep,” he said. “I have terrible nightmares about things that happened that night. I can smell blood. I wake up to being terrified . . . I wake up in a complete state of terror to the point that I would rather not sleep.”
Struggling to speak, he said he continues to live in fear of intruders: “I can’t remember if it was towards the end of last year or the beginning of this year, I woke up in a panic. I’m blessed my sister stays on the same property as I do, so I can phone her in the middle of the night which I often do to come and sit by me.
“Obviously I never want to handle a firearm again or be around firearms, so I’ve got a security guard that stands outside my front door at night. But I woke up and I was terrified and I for some reason couldn’t calm myself down, so I climbed into the cupboard and phoned my sister to sit with me, which she did.”
Earlier in the day Pistorius had vomited as a pathologist described Steenkamp’s fatal injuries. But under gentle questioning from the defence, he gained composure as he talked about his early life, his disability (“I don’t have balance on my stumps”), the influence of his mother and her unexpected death, his athletics career, his work for a charity helping victims of landmines and a boating accident that could have killed him. He also spoke affectionately about dogs he acquired: a Jack Russell, bull terrier and American pitbull.
Pistorius described an incident in which he saved a stranger from a violent assault. And in a point crucial to the defence’s contention he had reason to fear intruders, he told the court: “Everyone in South Africa at some point has been exposed to crime.”
He said his family had “security concerns” when he was young and his mother slept with a gun under her pillow. He said his family had suffered house break-ins and carjackings, and said he had sometimes been followed while driving home. Pistorius also referred to an incident in which he was allegedly assaulted at a social function in late 2012 and had to have stitches on the back of his head.
The trial adjourned earlier than usual at the request of defence counsel Barry Roux, who said Pistorius was exhausted after not sleeping the night before. June Steenkamp mustered a smile and kisses for members of the ANC women’s league, regular supporters in court.
The case resumes today with Pistorius still to face cross-examination.
– ( Guardian service)