Pistorius neighbour haunted by screams

ROBYN DIXON
Last updated 16:53 05/03/2014

Oscar Pistorius gets emotional at graphic evidence presented at his murder trial, and a heated exchange occurs between his defence lawyer and witness Michelle Burger.

Pistorius murder trial enters day two

Pistorius
Reuters
EMOTIONAL: Oscar Pistorius broke down hearing evidence in court on Tuesday (local time).
Pistorius
Reuters
BLOCKING IT OUT: Pistorius covers his ears while a witness gives evidence.

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The name of the victim in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial - his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp - was barely mentioned in the first two days of testimony. She appeared almost as a shadow: the voice of a woman described by witnesses screaming, petrified for her life.

Other testimony described a woman's voice raised in an apparent argument with someone on the night Pistorius fatally shot Steenkamp. That female voice went on and on, irritating a neighbour and keeping her awake.

Later, after several shots were fired, that neighbour thought she heard the woman crying loudly. Her testimony was discounted by defence advocate Barry Roux, who described a gunshot wound to the victim's head that instantly destroyed her capacity to think and act - or to scream.

But if Steenkamp's name was barely mentioned, her fate cast a long emotional shadow in the courtroom.

Pistorius, who in 2012 won acclaim for becoming the first amputee athlete to compete in the Olympics, has been calmer so far in his murder trial than the trembling, weeping figure in last year's bail hearing. But he broke down and cried Tuesday as Roux detailed the head wound that killed her.

Pistorius killed Steenkamp in the early hours of Valentine's Day last year when he shot through a closed door. According to prosecutors he fired four shots, including one that hit her head.

He pleaded not guilty to murder and contends he mistook her for an intruder. He has also pleaded not guilty to two counts of recklessly using a firearm and another of having ammunition without a license.

His neighbour, Michelle Burger, burst into tears on Tuesday (overnight NZT) recalling the raw emotion of the woman's screams she says she heard on the night Steenkamp died, and the shots that followed.

Burger gave evidence that she heard the blood-curdling screams of a terrified woman who knew her life was in danger. She told the court the next day that she has not recovered from the trauma. The memory of that voice haunts her every time she takes a shower.

Roux's intense cross-examination of Burger, as he sought to puncture her credibility, apparently left her emotionally fragile. Minutes after the cross-examination ended, she burst into tears under questioning by the prosecutor, Gerrie Nel.

Discrediting Burger - or at least raising reasonable doubt about her reliability - is crucial to Pistorius' case.

Her testimony about a woman screaming before the four shots is incompatible with Pistorius' story that all he heard was a bathroom window sliding open, took it for an intruder, went to the bathroom and fired through a door into an enclosed toilet in order to protect himself and Steenkamp.

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Roux suggested Burger was unclear about events. He contended that she was convinced of Pistorius' guilt and had retrospectively embellished her story based on what she had heard on the news. Roux suggested that the screaming Burger heard was Pistorius, not Steenkamp.

Over many hours of cross-examination, however, Burger insisted she had heard a woman's screams. She said that when she heard news reports detailing his version, she couldn't understand why he didn't talk about the screams.

Roux said that she heard not shots but the sound of a cricket bat as Pistorius broke down the door to get to Steenkamp. Burger insisted she heard a gun fired. She testified that final three shots happened so quickly they couldn't have been a cricket bat, which would have had to be raised repeatedly to smash down the door.

Burger said the final scream faded just after the fourth shot was fired. Roux said he would call medical experts who would testify that after being shot in the head, Steenkamp could not possibly have screamed because she would have had no cognitive function because of brain damage.

Pistorius wiped away tears as Steenkamp's injuries were discussed.

Estelle Van der Merwe, who lives fewer than 100 metres from Pistorius' house, told the High Court in Pretoria that she thought she heard a woman loudly arguing with someone the night the athlete shot his girlfriend to death. She said the voice woke her up and irritated her.

"From where I was it seemed like two people were involved in an argument, but I couldn't hear the other person's voice," she told the court.

About two hours later she heard several loud bangs and the sound of a woman crying. She asked her husband what the bangs were and he told her they were gunshots, but he said he thought it was Pistorius crying.

Judge Thokozile Masipa warned the media not to publish photos of witnesses after a South African television station and newspapers published a picture of Burger. Photographs of her also appeared on Twitter. The judge said an investigation would be held to determine how many media groups published photographs.

-Los Angeles Times

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