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

By Ellen Branagh

The Oscar Pistorius trial has begun with a key witness describing the "bloodcurdling screams" she heard on the night the Paralympian shot dead his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

Neighbour Michell Burger, who lived next to the Silverwoods Estate in Pretoria where 'Blade Runner' Pistorius lived, described hearing a woman screaming followed by four gunshots on the night of Reeva Steenkamp's death.

Her evidence came on the first day of Pistorius's highly-anticipated trial at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria today, where the six-times sprint champion formally pleaded not guilty to four charges including the murder of Miss Steenkamp.

Prosecutors allege the 27-year-old shot model and reality TV star Miss Steenkamp, 29, through the bathroom door of his home.

Ms Burger, a neighbour of Pistorius who lives in the Silver Stream Estate, described waking up at around 3am to a woman's "terrible screams".

Speaking through an interpreter, she said: "We woke up from the screams. My husband jumped up and went to the balcony."

Ms Burger told the court it had been traumatic to hear the "bloodcurdling screams", adding: "It leaves you cold."

She said she also heard a man screaming for help, adding: "Three times he yelled for help."

Ms Burger said she and her husband called security at their estate to report the screams and what they thought was a break-in.

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Reality TV show Tropika Island of Treasure, featuring Reeva Steenkamp, was filmed last year (AP/Stimulii)

'Intense screams'

She added: "I heard her screams again, it was worse, it was more intense. Just after her screams, I heard four shots, it was four gunshots that I heard."

Asked to describe the successive shots, she said there was a pause between the first and second which was longer between the second and third shots and the third and fourth.

She said: "I told my husband that I do not hope that that woman saw her husband being shot in front of her because after he screamed for help we didn't hear him again."

Under cross-examination, she told the court: "I could not understand how I could clearly hear a woman scream but Mr Pistorius couldn't hear that. I couldn't understand that.

"I agree that I heard four gunshots and that I heard a man screaming for help three times," she said, describing the screams as "fear-stricken" and "petrified".

She added: "I couldn't understand why Mr Pistorius didn't hear the screams of the woman and if he didn't hear the screams of the woman that's a question that needs to be asked to Mr Pistorius."

Ms Burger told the court that, while she had clearly heard four gunshots, her husband had heard "four, five or six" shots.

She said the evening was confusing but also "distressing", telling the court: "The events of that evening was extremely traumatic for me. The fear in that woman's voice is difficult to explain to the court."

She said she was traumatised by what she had heard: "It was a very emotional situation to have to hear. The absolute petrified screams and shouts, it was not just another evening, it was extremely emotional."

'Call for help'

At one point, the witness offered to speak in English as she said some of her words were not being translated correctly from Afrikaans to English by the intepreter.

Asked to explain when the screams were in relation to the gunshots, she said: "I heard her screaming first, then I heard her call for help. Then I heard a man call for help three times.

"I then made a call, I gave the phone to my husband and he spoke to security. Afterwards I heard the woman's petrified screams again."

She added: "I heard her screaming sometime during the shots", and said the last time she heard her shout was just after the shots.

Describing the traumatic experience of what she heard that night, she said: "I was convinced that that woman was being attacked, she and her husband were being attacked in their house. I was convinced it was an attack in the house by robbers. There was no doubt in my mind, because of the fear in that woman's voice."

She added: "Because of the climax of her shouts I knew something terrible was happening in that house.

"You only shout like that if your life is really threatened."

Under questioning from defence lawyer Barry Roux, Ms Burger said she definitely heard gunshots, but did not hear the sound of a cricket bat being used to hit the door.

The start of the trial - which is being watched by the world - was delayed by an hour and a half today as the court waited for Afrikaans interpreters.

Oscar Pistorius sits in the dock prior to the start of his trial at the high court in Pretoria, South Africa, Monday, March 3, 2014. Pistorius is charged with murder with premeditation in the shooting death of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine's Day 2013. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, ool)

'Not guilty'

As it got under way, Judge Thokozile Masipa, who will come to a decision at the end of the trial, and assessors Janet Henzen-Du Toit and Themba Mazibuko, heard Pistorius formally deny the murder of Ms Steenkamp.

The double amputee is charged with the murder of Ms Steenkamp, whom he shot dead at his home on Valentine's Day last year.

He also faces charges under the Firearms Control Act, relating to firing a gun through the sunroof of a car in September 2012, and firing a gun whilst in a restaurant in Johannesburg in January last year, as well as possession of ammunition.

When he entered court, Pistorius walked past the victim's mother who says she came to court so she could "really look him in the eyes".

Pistorius was asked by Judge Masipa if he understood the charge of murdering Ms Steenkamp, to which he replied: "I do, I do, my lady."

Asked how he pleaded, he said: "Not guilty, my lady."

The Paralympic star, wearing a dark suit, white shirt and dark tie, entered not guilty pleas to four charges in the packed courtroom in Pretoria.

The opening moments of his trial were televised in a first for South Africa.

From left, Oscar Pistorius' sister Aimee, his aunt Lois, and uncle Arnold wait for the start of his trial at the high court in Pretoria, South Africa, Monday, March 3, 2014. Pistorius is charged with murder with premeditation in the shooting death of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine's Day 2013. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, Pool)


Pistorius, dubbed the "Blade Runner" for his prosthetic legs, admits shooting Miss Steenkamp dead at his home but claims he thought she was an intruder.

His trial is expected to hear from more than 100 witnesses, including neighbours who claim to have heard screams from his house that night, as well as former girlfriends of the athlete.

In court today, Pistorius, who was supported by family members including siblings Carl and Aimee and his uncle Arnold, came face to face with Miss Steenkamp's mother June, who is attending the trial.

Carl Pistorius, at center in blue suit, the brother of Oscar Pistorius is escorted by police as he arrives at the high court in Pretoria, South Africa, Monday, March 3, 2014. Oscar Pistorius is charged with murder with premeditation in the shooting death of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine's Day 2013. (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel told the court: "They were the only two people in the house. There were no eyewitnesses.

"The state's case is based on circumstantial evidence."

He said evidence included what neighbours heard, and prosecutors would argue that "a certain inference" could be drawn from the scene.

"We argue that the accused's version in the bail application and today could not reasonably possibly be true, should be rejected," he said, adding: "The only inference from the circumstantial evidence would be that the accused shot and killed the deceased."

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This aerial image taken from video provided by VNS24/7 on Thursday Feb. 14, 2013, shows the gated housing complex with the home of Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius in Pretoria, South Africa. Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius has been arrested in the shooting death of his girlfriend, police and the woman's talent agent said Thursday. (AP Photo/VNS24/7)

'Fans on balcony'

Defence lawyer Kenny Oldwadge laid out Pistorius's legal strategy, reading a statement from the runner in which he says the killing was an accident and that there are inconsistencies in the state's case, as well as an attempt to introduce inadmissible character evidence to discredit him.

In the statement, Pistorius said he brought two fans in from the balcony on the night of the killing, after speaking to his girlfriend who was in bed beside him. He said Steenkamp must have gone into the bathroom while he was fetching the fans. Pistorius said he did not notice she had gone and heard the bathroom window open.

"I approached the bathroom, armed with my firearm, so as to defend Reeva and I," Pistorius said in the statement read by his lawyer.

He said he then heard a noise in the toilet, and was in a "fearful state" because he was unable to run away or defend himself physically since he was not wearing his prosthetic legs.

"The state has embarked on a strategy to rely on unsubstantiated allegations," he said, citing a neighbour's evidence that an argument had been heard in his home.

According to Pistorius's statement, other neighbours living nearby said they had not heard any argument.

The Paralympian said he did not intend to kill his then-girlfriend that night and they had not argued.

He said: "I deny this allegation in the strongest terms because there was no argument. The allegation that I wanted to shoot (or kill) Reeva cannot be further from the truth."

He also cited evidence provided by police detective Hilton Botha as "false in material respects".

"The scene was contaminated, disturbed and tampered with," the defence statement said. "This feature of the state's case will be dealt with when Botha, among others, gives evidence."

'Look him in the eyes'

In the courtroom, Pistorius, wearing a dark grey suit and black tie, was seated near Steenkamp's mother June. She was quoted in the Pretoria News saying she wanted to see Pistorius.

"I want to look at Oscar, really look him in the eyes, and see for myself the truth about what he did to Reeva," said June Steenkamp, 67. "Whatever the court decides at the end of his trial, I will be ready to forgive him. But first I want to force him to look at me, Reeva's mother, and see the pain and anguish he has inflicted on me. I feel I need that."

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - MARCH 03: A newspaper vendor sells the Pretoria News as the Oscar Pistorius trail starts at North Gauteng High Court on March 3, 2014 in Pretoria, South Africa. Olympic and Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, aged 27, is accused of murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. Pistorius denies the allegation claiming he mistook Steenkamp for an intruder inside their home on Valentines Day 2013. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Steenkamp was a glamorous model and budding reality TV show star when she died at the age of 29.

If convicted on the premeditated murder charge, Pistorius could be sent to prison for at least 25 years before the chance of parole, the minimum time someone must serve if given a life sentence in South Africa, which does not have the death penalty. If Pistorius is found guilty, he will be over 50 when he is released.

A lesser sentence is possible if Pistorius is found guilty of murder but without premeditation. He also could be convicted of culpable homicide, South Africa's version of manslaughter in which someone is killed through negligence.

Judge Thokozile Masipa, hearing the biggest trial of her career, will ultimately pronounce the champion runner innocent or guilty and will decide on any sentence. South Africa has no trial by jury.

Parts of the trial will be broadcast on live television, in South Africa and across the world. A South African cable channel has been launched which will provide 24-hour coverage of the Pistorius trial, using commentators and prepared feature stories when the court is not in session.

The case in Pretoria was adjourned until Tuesday morning at 9.30am local time (7.30am GMT).


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' 

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