Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Oscar Pistorius trial: 'Sound was cricket bat banging bathroom door, not gunshots'

Oscar Pistorius sits with his head in his hands in the dock on the third day of his trial at the high court in Pretoria, South Africa, Wednesday, March 5, 2014. Pistorius is charged with murder for the shooting death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine's Day in 2013. (AP Photo/Siphiwe Sibeko, Pool)
Oscar Pistorius sits with his head in his hands in the dock on the third day of his trial at the high court in Pretoria, South Africa, Wednesday, March 5, 2014. Pistorius is charged with murder for the shooting death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine's Day in 2013. (AP Photo/Siphiwe Sibeko, Pool)

The chief defence lawyer in Oscar Pistorius' murder trial has sought to undermine the prosecution evidence of a couple who say they heard a woman's screams and gunfire the night the athlete fatally shot his girlfriend.

Lawyer Barry Roux said telephone records will show that the banging sounds the neighbours heard were instead a distressed Pistorius hitting a toilet door with a cricket bat to get to fatally wounded girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

Charl Johnson and his wife Michelle Burger have testified to hearing a sequence of events in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine's Day last year that involved a woman screaming, a man shouting for help and then the sound of gunshots.

Cross-examining Mr Johnson on the third day of the blockbuster trial, Mr Roux said call records will show Pistorius called an estate manager at around 3.19am and soon after he bashed in the door with the bat.

In Mr Johnson and Ms Burger's evidence, they said they heard what they described as shots straight after making a call to security at 3.16am. The similar times show the sounds were the bat on the door, Mr Roux argued.

"There is only one thing you could have heard, because it coincides precisely," Mr Roux said to Mr Johnson. "That was the time that he (Pistorius) broke down the door (with the bat)."

Mr Johnson replied, addressing the judge: "My lady, I am convinced the sound I heard was gunshots."

"I understand," Mr Roux said in the exchange, suggesting Mr Johnson had convinced himself they were shots.

Throwing doubt on the witnesses' recollection of the sequence is crucial for Pistorius' defence after the state maintained there was a loud argument on the night he shot Ms Steenkamp through a door in his bathroom and screams and shouts before a gun was fired.

Pistorius' team wants to show the screams were Pistorius calling for help after the accidental shots.

After a break, prosecutor Gerrie Nel asked for permission to stand down Mr Johnson until tomorrow to get more records. The judge agreed and the case moved on to its fourth witness.

Pistorius, 27, has said he shot 29-year-old Ms Steenkamp by accident, fearing she was a dangerous intruder in his home. The case has transfixed people around the world, and the proceedings are being broadcast on television, adding to the scrutiny of South Africa's criminal justice system as well as the character of a globally-admired athlete whose career peaked when he ran in the 2012 Olympics.

Pistorius was born without fibula bones because of a congenital defect and his legs were amputated when he was 11 months old. He has run on carbon-fibre blades and was initially banned from competing against able-bodied peers because many argued that his blades gave him an unfair advantage. He was later cleared to compete. He is a multiple Paralympic medallist but he failed to win a medal at the London Olympics.

Lawyer Mr Roux earlier attacked the evidence of Mr Johnson and Ms Burger by also saying similarities in their accounts indicated that they had aligned their versions at the expense of truth.

In his evidence, Mr Johnson told the court in South African capital Pretoria that he heard the cries of a terrified woman and shooting around the time that Pistorius killed Ms Steenkamp.

Mr Johnson's wife, Ms Burger, had given similar evidence and at one point broke down in tears because of what she said was the memory of the terrified screams of a woman.

Mr Roux said there were differences between the statements that Mr Johnson and Ms Burger had given to police after the shooting, and evidence that they gave in court. Both the statements and the evidence given in court shared similarities, Mr Roux said, implying that the couple had contaminated their evidence by talking through what they were going to say.

"You could just as well have stood together in the witness box," Mr Roux said. "What do you say to that?"

The tart assertion drew a caution from Judge Thokozile Masipa, who told Mr Roux he had gone too far.

Mr Roux contended that crucial elements in the evidence of the couple were missing in their earlier comments to police, including the statements that they heard a woman's screams rising in anxiety and intensity and that they heard the woman's voice "fading" after the last in a volley of gunshots.

Mr Johnson suggested that he and his wife were more expressive while giving evidence in court than when providing information for a police document.

"I would venture a guess that it's the way you verbally tell the story," he said. "There's a lot more emotion involved ... whereas the statement is more factual."

At the beginning of proceedings today, prosecutor Mr Nel said Mr Johnson's telephone number had been read out in court a day earlier. Mr Johnson then said he had since received a "large amount" of missed calls.

He described one voicemail message as saying: "Why are you lying in court? You know Oscar didn't kill Reeva. It's not cool."

Further reading:

Oscar Pistorius trial: The case for and against premeditated murder - interactive graphic

Oscar Pistorius trial: Paddy Power defends 'sick' betting advert, describing murder case as 'like OJ Simpson on steroids'

Oscar Pistorius trial: Reeva Steenkamp murder witness tells court 'When I'm in the shower, I relive her shouts' 

Oscar Pistorius trial: 'Bloodcurdling screams, then four gunshots' described by Reeva Steenkamp murder witness 

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