Monday 22 December 2014

Pistorius' neighbour 'awoken by bloodcurdling scream and shots'

Aislinn Laing and Erin Conway-Smith Pretoria

Published 04/03/2014 | 02:30

Oscar Pistorius sits in court ahead of his trial at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria. REUTERS/Themba Hadebe/Pool
Oscar Pistorius sits in court ahead of his trial at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria. REUTERS/Themba Hadebe/Pool
Oscar Pistorius smiles in court during his trial at the high court in Pretoria, South Africa
June Steenkamp (L), mother of the murdered Reeva Steenkamp, sits in court ahead of the trial of Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria March 3, 2014. Pistorius will stand in a Pretoria dock on Monday to face a charge of murdering his girlfriend Reeva, opening the decisive chapter in the story of the rise and fall of one of the world's most recognisable athletes. REUTERS/Themba Hadebe/Pool (SOUTH AFRICA - Tags: SPORT ATHLETICS CRIME LAW TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
June Steenkamp, the mother of Reeva Steenkamp, arrives at court in Pretoria (AP)
Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius hugs his brother Carl Pistorius (facing camera) during his trial at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria
Reeva Steenkamp: died after she was shot by her boyfriend Oscar Pistorius. Photo: Gallo Images / Herald / Mike Holmes
Oscar Pistorius and his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp

A witness living close to Oscar Pistorius told a court yesterday of how she was awoken by "bloodcurdling screams" followed by four gunshots on Valentine's Day last year, when the Paralympic athlete killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

Michelle Burger, a lecturer in construction economics at the University of Pretoria who lived 180 yards away from the runner's home in Pretoria, said "a woman's terrible screams" filled the air at around 3am, followed by a man shouting for help, then more screams from the woman and then gunshots.

"It was the most helpless screaming I have ever heard in my life. I knew something terrible was happening in that house," she said. Ms Burger was the first witness to give evidence in what has been billed as one of the biggest criminal trials of the decade.

Pistorius is accused of the premeditated murder of Ms Steenkamp, an 'FHM' model and law graduate, after a furious row in the early hours of February 14 last year.

He insisted once again in a statement read to the court that he had shot her through the locked lavatory door of his home believing she was an intruder.

"What happened was a tragic accident," he said. "We were in a loving relationship. There was no argument. The allegation I wanted to shoot or kill Reeva could not be further from the truth."

Previously, Pistorius has appeared shaken at times. But a year after the shooting, he was composed and engaged. Asked to respond to the murder charge, Pistorius – wearing a black suit, white shirt and black tie – told Judge Thokozile Mapisa: "Not guilty, M'lady." He also pleaded not guilty to two separate charges of recklessly shooting a firearm in public, and illegal possession of ammunition.

Behind the 27-year-old athlete in the gallery were nine members of his family and, just yards away, Steenkamp's mother June. As she walked into court, Mrs Steenkamp saw her daughter's killer for the first time. Flanked by friends, she seemed a woman still in deep grief.

HARROWING

The evidence was at times harrowing. Mrs Burger said there was a gap between the first shot and the next three, describing it as "bang (pause). bang bang bang."

She said that what she heard that night had left her "cold", but that she had assumed it was a robbery in which the man of the house had been shot.

"I sat upright in bed and my husband also woke up from the screams. He jumped up and went to the balcony," she told the court in Afrikaans.

"She screamed terribly and yelled for help. Then I also heard a man scream for help, three times." The witness said she called to her husband to call security.

"I heard screams again, it was worse, more intense," she said.

"It was very traumatic for me to hear those bloodcurdling screams. It leaves you cold to hear that angst, that fear." Ms Burger's evidence boosts the strength of the prosecution's evidence – at Pistorius's bail hearing days after the shooting, police had only questioned a witness at least three times further away from Pistorius's apartment.

But it also supports Pistorius's statement that he cried out for help after shooting Steenkamp, saying he only realised then that she was not an intruder.

Barry Roux, Pistorius's pugnacious barrister, made little headway with Ms Burger. He sought to suggest she had mistaken the sound of a cricket bat knocking down a door for gunshots.

Prof Stephen Tuson, a criminal barrister and law lecturer at Wits University, said Ms Burger held up unusually well under cross-examination and her evidence would undoubtedly strengthen the prosecution's hand. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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