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Wednesday 1 October 2014

Witness in Pistorius trial breaks down as she recalls hearing terrified screams of a woman

Published 04/03/2014 | 08:48

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The first witness in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial has broken down in tears, saying she still remembers the terrified screams of a woman on the night the double-amputee Olympic athlete killed his girlfriend by shooting four times through a toilet door.

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Michelle Burger, who lives near Pistorius' home and who had been composed through two days of gruelling cross-examination at the high court in Pretoria, wept as she finished giving evidence.

Earlier the trial was interrupted and the judge ordered an investigation into allegations that a South African TV channel was broadcasting a photograph of Ms Burger - against a court order guaranteeing privacy to witnesses who request it.

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel asked Ms Burger about her emotions at the time when she made her statement to police. "It was quite raw," she said, her voice breaking.

"When I'm in the shower, I relive her shouts," Ms Burger said of hearing the woman screaming before the sound of gunshots in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine's Day last year.

Burger lives about 177 metres from Pistorius' house.

Mr Nel asked her how she was coping. "I'm coping fine," Ms Burger said. "It's been a year."

Ms Burger's testimony about events on the night of February 14, 2013, contradicts the Olympian's story.

Pistorius says he shot four times through a toilet door, hitting his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp three times in the head, arm and hip or side area after thinking she was a dangerous intruder.

He has pleaded not guilty to the murder charge lodged by prosecutors, who say Pistorius intentionally killed Ms Steenkamp.

During cross-examination of Ms Burger, Pistorius lawyer Barry Roux insisted the university lecturer was mistaken in saying that she heard a woman screaming and that she actually had heard Pistorius screaming for help in a high voice after accidentally shooting his girlfriend.

Giving sometimes grisly details of the 29-year-old model's killing, Mr Roux said Ms Steenkamp had been shot in the head, which would have resulted in brain damage and "no cognitive function" and so she would not have been able to scream just after the last bullet struck, as Ms Burger testified.

"With the head shot, she (Steenkamp) would have dropped down immediately," Mr Roux said.

Ms Burger disagreed. "I heard her voice just after the last shot," she said. "It faded away."

Pistorius took notes during testimony and huddling with lawyers during adjournments. His collected demeanour contrasted with his sometimes distraught behaviour during a bail hearing last year, when he often sobbed out loud and cried in court. At one point he covered his ears, but it was not clear why.

The world-famous athlete faces a life sentence with a minimum of 25 years in prison before parole if convicted of murder with premeditation.

Judge Thokozile Masipa earlier warned the media to respect a ruling that images of witnesses who request privacy should not be shown. TV station eNCA broadcast a live audio feed of Ms Burger's testimony with a photograph of her, prosecutor Mr Nel said in court. He said the photo was captioned: "On the stand: Michelle Burger, Pistorius neighbour."

"I am warning the media, if you do not behave, you are not going to be treated with soft gloves by this court," Judge Masipa warned.

Another judge ruled last week that parts of Pistorius' trial could be broadcast on live TV - both in South Africa and around the world - but witnesses who request privacy, like Ms Burger, would not be shown.

An audio only feed of their testimony would then be broadcast.

The second day of Oscar Pistorius's murder trial was dramatically interrupted today and the judge ordered an investigation into allegations that a South African television channel was broadcasting a photograph of a witness - in breach of a court order guaranteeing privacy to witnesses who request it.

Judge Thokozile Masipa at the high court in Pretoria warned the media to respect the ruling that images of witnesses who request privacy should not be shown.

She called the revelation "very disturbing".

"An investigation is to follow to find out exactly what is happening. This may just be the tip of the iceberg," said Judge Masipa.

The witness, Michelle Burger, lives close to Pistorius's house and told the court she heard a woman screaming on the night the Olympic athlete killed girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp last year, leading him to be charged with murder.

South African television station eNCA was broadcasting a live audio feed of university lecturer Ms Burger's evidence with a still photograph of her, prosecutor Gerrie Nel said in court.

He said the photo was captioned: "On the stand: Michelle Burger, Pistorius neighbour."

Mr Nel said eNCA contacted the court clerk to ask if it could run a photograph of the witness that it had obtained from outside the court.

The court said no, Mr Nel said.

"They still went ahead and did it," the prosecutor said.

Mr Nel said the outlet found the photo "somewhere else".

The development came less than 30 minutes into today's proceedings when Mr Nel interrupted Pistorius's lawyer, Barry Roux, during his cross-examination of Ms Burger, saying he had just been informed that her image was being shown on television.

The judge adjourned the proceedings and Ms Burger immediately left the room.

When the judge returned after meeting with the two sides in her chambers, she ruled that there would be an investigation and instructed that no photographs may be shown in the media of any witness who requests privacy, regardless of the source.

"I am warning the media - if you do not behave, you are not going to be treated with soft gloves by this court," Judge Masipa said.

Another judge ruled last week that parts of Pistorius's blockbuster trial could be broadcast on live TV - in South Africa and around the world - but witnesses who request privacy, like Ms Burger, would not be shown.

An audio-only feed of their evidence would then be broadcast.

The evidence of expert witnesses for the state and police officers can be broadcast on television, but witnesses for the state who request privacy as well as Pistorius and his defence witnesses will not be seen on television or in still images - unless they give their permission.

Ms Burger, who lives about 180 metres from Pistorius's house, is the first witness to give evidence at the trial and has testified to a sequence of events on the night of February 14 last year which contradicts the athlete's story.

Ms Burger said she heard a woman scream and a man shouting for help before the sound of gunshots on the night a year ago.

Pistorius says he was the only person to shout after thinking there was a dangerous intruder inside his bathroom.

He says he then shot his girlfriend through a toilet door by mistake.

For a second day, defence lawyer Mr Roux sought to undercut the evidence of Ms Burger, who wore a black suit and pink blouse.

Mr Roux suggested the university lecturer was changing her story partly because she had not told police in a statement last year that she had heard screaming during the gunshots.

Mr Roux was also sceptical that she could hear fear and anxiety in the voice of a woman in a toilet cubicle with a closed door.

"I will invite the state to go and do a test" to see if the sound would carry, Mr Roux said.

Ms Burger stuck to her account, saying the area where she lives is tranquil and near a nature reserve, and that the windows of her house were open because there is no air conditioning.

"It's very quiet," she said. "Sound carries."

Prosecutor Mr Nel objected to Mr Roux's sometimes acerbic interrogation, saying it was repetitive.

But Judge Masipa allowed the questioning to proceed and warned Ms Burger she would be "in that witness box" for a lot longer unless she gave direct answers.

"You don't give an explanation," Judge Masipa said. "If the answer is yes, you say yes. If it's no, you say no. If you don't know, you say you don't know."

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