Oscar Pistorius trial: Jaw-dropping testimony evidence or character assassination?
Gerald Imray, The Associated Press
Published Sunday, March 9, 2014 4:49PM EDT
Last Updated Sunday, March 9, 2014 10:35PM EDT
PRETORIA, South Africa -- The testimony in the first week of Oscar Pistorius' murder trial was jaw dropping at times, and more riveting evidence is expected as the prosecution seeks to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the double-amputee athlete intentionally shot dead his girlfriend.
Pistorius' once-inspiring life story unraveled as witnesses testified about his history of anger, infidelity and recklessness with guns, and his suspicious behaviour on the night prosecutors allege the Olympian murdered his girlfriend and tried to cover it up.
Pistorius' murder trial -- which is being shown on live television across the world -- also shed more light on the events in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine's Day last year, when he shot dead Reeva Steenkamp in a bathroom in his home. Pistorius claims it was an accident, but prosecutors have charged him with premeditated murder for the killing of the 29-year-old model.
In a Pretoria court, the first witness said she heard a woman's "blood-curdling" screams coming from Pistorius' house on the night he killed Steenkamp. Michelle Burger, a neighbour of Pistorius, sobbed in court after recalling that she was haunted by what she heard.
Another neighbour, who is a doctor, described in detail the grisly scene he was confronted with when he entered Pistorius' home and found a fatally wounded Steenkamp lying on the floor and Pistorius kneeling next to her, weeping, praying and apparently trying to help his dying or dead girlfriend breathe even though she had a terrible gunshot wound in the head and the doctor knew there was little hope.
In court, Pistorius, 27, held his hands over his ears and hunched over as radiologist Johan Stipp recounted how he could not find any signs of life on Steenkamp's bloody body.
Pistorius shot Steenkamp through a toilet door with a 9 mm pistol, hitting her in the head, arm and hip area and killing her. He says he thought she was a dangerous intruder. Prosecutors, however, say Pistorius killed Steenkamp intentionally after a loud fight. Three neighbours have testified to hearing a woman screaming and a man shouting before gunfire. The celebrated runner, the first amputee to run at the Olympics, faces a life sentence with a minimum of 25 years in prison before parole if convicted of murder.
Pistorius has pleaded not guilty to all the charges against him; murder and three firearm-related offences. Free on bail, he ended the first week of sometimes damaging prosecution testimony with his now usual routine outside the courthouse of jostling through a gantlet of press and public, flanked by police and security guards who bundled him into an SUV with reflective windows.
"I really thought the state started well, I really did. They are starting with a left hook," said former state prosecutor and now defence lawyer in South Africa, Marius du Toit, who is not involved in the case. "But, of course, the fight never lasts one round."
A former girlfriend, who said she was 17 when she started dating Pistorius in 2011, painted a picture of a man quick to anger who carried a gun with him at all times and who once shot it out of a car after an altercation with police. Samantha Taylor talked about another incident when she said Pistorius once jumped out of a car with a gun in hand to threaten an unidentified person he thought was following them.
Through tears, she also testified that Pistorius cheated on her twice, the second time with the woman he killed. Murmurs rippled through the courtroom when Taylor said: "He cheated on me with Reeva Steenkamp."
Another friend told how Pistorius asked someone else to take the blame when a gun he was handling fired under a table in a busy restaurant.
At the start of the trial, the defence objected to what they call inadmissible evidence that amounts to character "assassination."
While the first five days of proceedings were dominated by doubts over Pistorius' character and some of his actions on the night of Steenkamp's death, the defence has sought to poke holes in the prosecution's case about the sequence of events: It says it can prove that Steenkamp did not scream before the shots and could not have screamed during them, as witnesses have said.
And forthcoming forensic evidence could back Pistorius' version of the events.
Prosecutors still have "everything to do" to show beyond a reasonable doubt that Pistorius, whatever his previous actions, intentionally killed his girlfriend on Feb. 14, 2013, according to former prosecutor du Toit, who has over 20 years' experience in South Africa's criminal justice system.
"The ballistic and forensic evidence is going to be crucial in that regard," he said.
There are questions Pistorius needs to answer, though.
Stipp, the doctor on the scene, said that Pistorius at one point went back upstairs to the area where he shot Steenkamp while she lay dying or dead on the floor downstairs-- an unusual reaction. Stipp couldn't testify to what Pistorius was doing.
And the most recent witness to take the stand, a security guard, added to the suspicions by recounting a call he made to Pistorius after gunshots were reported by neighbours. Pistorius told him everything was "fine," the guard testified. The athlete then called him back moments later but didn't speak and cried before the call ended, the guard said.
Pieter Baba said he told a fellow guard: "Everything was not in order as Mr. Pistorius was telling me."