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PRETORIA, South Arica – A scream, then a man’s shouted cries for help, “bloodcurdling” screaming, four gunshots, and a woman’s voice fading in the distance.
When university lecturer Michelle Burger went to bed on Valentine’s eve last year, she did not expect to be woken by screams from the housing estate neighboring her own.
In a simple black blazer with her hair pinned just behind the crown of her head, Burger, the state prosecution’s first witness in the trial against murder-accused Olympian Oscar Pistorius, began her testimony timidly, growing bolder with indignance during cross examination.
Oscar Pistorius sits in court ahead of his trial at the North Gauteng High Court. (REUTERS)
Awoken by cries just after 3 o’clock in the morning, Burger told the court she heard a man’s voice shouting, “Help, help, help!” followed by intensifying screaming from a woman “to a climax,” then four gun shots, with a pause between the first and second.
Pistorius, the track star who gained worldwide fame as The Blade Runner, is accused of murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, 29, inside his home last February. Maintaining innocence, the 27-year-old Pistorius contends he fired a gun through a locked bathroom door believing an intruder was on the other side. There was no intruder, only Steenkamp.
With no eyewitnesses other than Pistorius, the prosecution began its case with Burger’s account. Even under tough cross examination by a relentless Barry Roux, Pistorius’ defense attorney, Burger remained adamant.
“The shouts, the screams, they were petrified,” she testified inside a courtroom that included Steenkamp’s mother June. “I knew something terrible was happening in that house. You only shout like that when your life is being threatened. It’s something that leaves you cold.”
A resident of the luxury Silver Stream housing estate bordering Pistorius’ Silver Woods, Burger’s home (as highlighted in aerial photographs entered into evidence by the state prosecution) is a mere 177 meters (less than 600 feet) from the Olympian’s house.
“I heard two different people that evening, a male voice and a female voice. They did not sound remotely the same,” Burger told the court, adding that she chose to come forward after hearing Pistorius’ assertions that he never heard Reeva scream.
Despite Burger’s resolute testimony, Pistorius’ defense strategy appears to be focused on creating reasonable doubt.
Roux posited that the four gun shots Burger says she heard might have, in fact, been Pistorius attempting to break down the bathroom door with a cricket bat, and that the voices she heard weren’t two but rather one.
Could the strikes of a cricket bat on a wooden door sound like gunshots in the night, asked Roux. Could the high-pitched shout of a stricken man sound like a woman?
“You hear sounds, and in your mind, you hear gunshots,” Roux told Burger in cross-examination, a statement met with an almost imperceptible nod from Judge Thokozile Masipa, the single judge who will decide the Blade Runner’s fate.
But Burger stood her ground, saying she’s heard gunshots before and had herself fired a weapon at a shooting range. “I’m 100 percent,” she told the court of her certainty in what she heard in the early hours of Valentine’s Day.
Pistorius remained composed in court, wiping away a tear only during the statement accompanying his “not guilty” plea to all charges: the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, recklessly discharging a firearm on two occasions, and the illegal possession of ammunition.
In a sharp charcoal grey suit and black tie, Pistorious stood with his hands clasped before him as his advocate Kenny Oldwage read his plea explanation, which accuses the state prosecution of attempting to assassinate his character by introducing character evidence, and says the scene of the shooting was contaminated, disturbed and tampered with.
The athlete’s statement describes how he had spoken to his model girlfriend shortly before getting out of bed to collect two fans from the balcony, when he then heard the bathroom window sliding open.
June Steenkamp wipes her face with a tissue at the start the trial of Oscar Pistorius, right. (AP)
Pistorius says at the time he believed Reeva was still in bed. In his fearful state – assuming there to be an intruder – on his stumps and unable to run away, he fired his gun.
The prosecution contends the two were arguing prior to Pistorius firing his gun.
“I deny in the strongest terms … there was no argument,” his statement read. “The allegation that I wanted to kill Reeva cannot be further from the truth.”
Steenkamp’s mother June, sitting on the bench behind the dock where Pistorius sat, wept.
Despite sharing the same court bench as Arnold and Lois Pistorius, the uncle and aunt Pistorius has been living with since he was released on bail more than a year ago, his brother Carl and sister Aimee, June Steenkamp and the Pistorius family did not speak to each other.
It was the first time June Steenkamp has come face-to-face with the man who shot her daughter, her only previous contact with him having taken place on the telephone. Told by Reeva then that he was driving recklessly, she reportedly asked Pistorius to look after her daughter, “the only one I have.”
She entered the court Monday, pale and determined.
A tented media city has been erected in the rain outside the North Gauteng High Court, but even the photographers perched on the roof of the bus stop missed the Blade Runner’s low-key entrance, pushing through the hordes of waiting journalists on foot.
The media interest in the trial has been unprecedented, with a judge allowing partial live broadcast of the proceedings, a first for South Africa.
Touted as the “trial of the century” by the 24-hour news channel which launched on Sunday evening to cover the event, its trailers are replete with theme music from the CSI television series and a documentary about Reeva Steenkamp accompanied by time-lapsed sunsets superimposed over her face in the heavens.
Inside the wood-paneled courtroom, the prelude to the day’s unfolding drama continued in the same vein. Annemarie Versfeld, the woman who disrupted proceedings during the bail hearing by claiming the Blade Runner needed psychiatric assessment, arrived wearing an advocate’s robe, refusing to leave until she was escorted from the courtroom by plain-clothes court staff.
Proceedings began an hour and a half later than scheduled, with an official telling a local television journalist the delay occurred because the designated Afrikaans language interpreter was “overwhelmed” when told she would be working on the Pistorius case, bursting into tears and having to be replaced.
It was a day plagued by ongoing problems with interpretation, to the point where Burger chose to testify in English, after having to correct the replacement interpreter several times.
As the cross examination deteriorated into a battle about semantics, and it became clear that crucial nuances were being missed in translation, the replacement interpreter was herself replaced halfway through the afternoon.
Leaving the courtroom, Pistorius remained silent in the face of questions from journalists. June Steenkamp followed, with a grim expression and furrowed brow.
Cross examination of Burger will continue Tuesday.
Asked on his way out of the courtroom how he thought the case was going, defense attorney Brian Weber smiled. “It’s too early to tell,” he told Yahoo Sports.