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Witness testimony to challenge Pistorius defence

Oscar Pistorius's murder trial was set Wednesday to hear further testimony of screams and gunshots the night Reeva Steenkamp died, challenging the sprinter's defence against premeditated murder.

world Updated: Mar 05, 2014 12:29 IST
Oscar Pistorius,Oscar Pistorius trial,Reeva Steenkamp murder

Oscar Pistorius's murder trial was set Wednesday to hear further testimony of screams and gunshots the night Reeva Steenkamp died, challenging the sprinter's defence against premeditated murder.

In vivid testimony that cast doubt on the Paralympian's claims of a "tragic accident", three state witnesses have told the court they heard a commotion then gunshots on Valentine's Day 2013 at Pistorius's home.

The trio's account directly contradicts Pistorius's claim that he shot his girlfriend, a 29-year-old model and law graduate, through a locked toilet door after mistaking her for an intruder.

"When I'm in the shower, I relive her shouts. The terrifying screams," university lecturer Michelle Burger said on Tuesday, her voice cracking with emotion as she was unable to hold back the tears.

Burger's husband, Charl Johnson, also took the stand, telling judge Thokozile Masipa that a woman's screams woke him up and that he ran to his balcony, less than 200 metres from Pistorius's home.

He is set to retake the stand on the third day of proceedings and face cross examination.

"At that point the fear and intensity of her voice escalated and it was clear that this person's life was in danger," he said on Tuesday.

"That's when the first shots were fired," although Johnson could not recall how many.

Another neighbour, second witness Estelle van der Merwe, who lives less than 100 metres (yards) away from Pistorius's home, also told the court she heard arguing coming from the house.

"I woke up in the morning at 1:56am to sounds of someone talking loudly and fighting," she told the court. "It lasted about an hour."

Later she recalled waking up to the sound of loud bangs.

Both Johnson and Burger also said they heard a male person shout for help, a point that was seized upon by the defence as evidence Pistorius was calling for help.

'She could not have screamed'
Pistorius, 27, a double amputee known as the "Blade Runner" for his carbon-fibre running blades, has pleaded not guilty to murder and three unrelated gun charges.

While admitting killing Steenkamp, the sprinter described it as a "tragic accident", denying murderous intent and saying "we were in a loving relationship".

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

In the face of the prosecution's onslaught, Pistorius's lawyer Barry Roux spent most of Tuesday trying to pick apart the witnesses' account of events.

In terse exchanges, he accused Burger of rejecting Pistorius's account out of hand, moulding her testimony to fit media reports and jumping to conclusions.

"You made up your mind that his version could not be," said Roux, claiming Pistorius sounds like a women when he screams and that the bangs heard were him trying to break down the toilet door with a bat.

"You interpreted cricket bat shots to be gunshots and screaming to be a woman and not Oscar. If you didn't do that, his version would make sense."

Tensions in court were heightened when a statement was read explaining the violent nature of Steenkamp's death.

As Roux claimed a gunshot wound to the head would have made it impossible for Steenkamp to scream, Pistorius bowed his head and folded his hands behind his neck.

"The person with that brain damage will have no cognitive response," continued Roux. "It cannot be. She could not have screamed."

Prosecution lawyer Gerrie Nel interjected to say it was the last of four shots that struck Steenkamp's head, the first three hitting her right side, the wall and her shoulder.

Meanwhile, across the court, one of Steenkamp's relatives touched a photo of the budding reality TV star, as a man put his arm around her.

The trial is expected to last three weeks.

First Published: Mar 05, 2014 10:58 IST