PRETORIA, South Africa: The first witness in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial broke down in tears Tuesday, saying she still remembers the terrified screams of a woman on the night the double amputee athlete killed his girlfriend by shooting four times through a toilet door.
Michelle Burger, who lives near Pistorius’ home and who had been composed through two days of grueling cross-examination, wept as she ended her testimony by speaking about how she had reflected on the early hours of Valentine’s Day last year.
“When I’m in the shower, I relive her shouts,” Burger said of hearing the woman screaming before the sound of gunshots in the predawn hours of that night. Burger lives about 177 meters from Pistorius’ house.
Earlier, the trial was interrupted and the judge ordered an investigation into allegations that a South African television channel was broadcasting a photograph of Burger during her testimony – against a court order guaranteeing privacy to witnesses who request it.
Toward the end of Burger’s testimony, Gerrie Nel, the prosecutor, asked her about her emotions at the time when she made her statement to police regarding what she heard that night.
“It was quite raw,” Burger said, her voice breaking. Nel asked her how she was coping.
“I’m coping fine,” Burger insisted. “It’s been a year.”
Burger’s testimony about events on the night of Feb. 14, 2013, contradicts the Olympian’s story. Pistorius says he shot four times through the toilet cubicle door, hitting Steenkamp three times in the head, arm and hip or side area after thinking she was a dangerous intruder. He pleaded not guilty to the murder charge lodged by prosecutors, who say the world-famous athlete intentionally killed Steenkamp after a loud argument.
Burger’s husband, Charl Johnson, and another Pistorius neighbor, Estelle van der Merwe, also gave testimony Tuesday.
During cross-examination of Burger, defense 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 Steenkamp.
Giving sometimes grisly details of the 29-year-old model Steenkamp’s killing, Roux said Steenkamp had been shot in the head, which would have resulted in brain damage and “no cognitive function” and so she wouldn’t have been able to scream just after the last bullet struck, as Burger testified.
Roux said that an expert would later testify in the trial that “with the head shot, she [Steenkamp] would have dropped down immediately.”
Burger disagreed. “I heard her voice just after the last shot,” she said. “It faded away.”
Pistorius took notes during testimony and huddled with lawyers during adjournments. His collected demeanor contrasted with his sometimes distraught behavior during a bail hearing last year, when he sobbed in court. At one point Tuesday he covered his ears, but it wasn’t clear why.
The only time Pistorius looked anxious was when he prepared to leave the courthouse after the day’s proceedings were adjourned. Surrounded by police officers and private bodyguards, Pistorius ducked his head and walked out as one of the officers said: “Let’s go, guys.”
Outside, television cameras, photographers and others swarmed around him.
Pistorius 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 Burger’s testimony with a photograph of her, Nel said in court. He said the photo was captioned: “On the stand: Michelle Burger, Pistorius neighbor.”
“I am warning the media, if you do not behave, you are not going to be treated with soft gloves by this court,” Masipa said.
Another judge ruled last week that parts of Pistorius’ blockbuster trial could be broadcast on live TV – in South Africa and around the world – but witnesses who request privacy, like Burger, would not be shown. An audio-only feed of their testimony would be broadcast.