With gripping testimony about a “blood-curdling” scream, the Oscar Pistorius murder trial started Monday in a South African court where the double-amputee Olympian stands accused of fatally shooting his model-girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.
Pistorius, 27, has pleaded not guilty and claims he fired four times through a bathroom door in February 2013 in the mistaken belief he was shooting at an intruder. The trial – a sensation in his home country, which has held the Olympian as a hero – already has offered several highlights, surprises and unusual moments:
A Mother’s Stare
Reeva’s mother June Steenkamp stared at Pistorius for a full minute as he walked into the courtroom. He steadfastly ignored her. The Steenkamp family sat on the right side of a long bench along with the Pistorius family, with several lawyers sandwiched between them.
The first witness, Michelle Burger, a neighbor of Pistorius’s, gave chilling testimony that she heard a woman’s screams, and then a man’s cries for help, followed by four gunshots and more screams. In cross-examination, defense lawyer Barry Roux attempted to pick her testimony apart, even suggesting, in a comment that drew laughs from the packed gallery, that the women’s screams may have actually been Pistorius, who he claimed may sound like a woman when he screams.
The trial was delayed for 90 minutes as court officials scrambled to find an interpreter who could translate from Afrikaans to English during Burger’s testimony. The interpreter finally showed up, but was quickly stymied, which was evident to all the Afrikaans-speakers in the room and became even clearer when the witness, who was clearly fluent in English, began correcting the translator. Burger, who said she was more comfortable in Afrikaans (spoken by about a quarter of South African), finally gave up and switched her testimony to English, but not before the judge summoned the translator to her chambers.
The Mystery Woman
A woman who donned a black robe and eluded security attempted to interrupt the trial, claiming she intended to file a motion to have Pistorius psychiatrically committed. Known as Annmarie and believed to be the ex-wife of an orthopedic surgeon, she claims Pistorius’s mother spoke to her in a dream. The woman previously tried to file the same motion during Pistoriuss’ bail hearing but it was dismissed. On Monday, she managed to enter a section in the courtroom reserved for lawyers. She refused to move until officials persuaded her to meet the judge privately in chambers.
Pistorius’s defense came out swinging, with Pistorius pleading not guilty to anything, not to even the weapons-related charges he faces, which include firing a weapon at a busy Johannesburg restaurant and possessing ammunition he should not have had. The defense then promised to make a fierce argument, saying there was never an argument on the night of the shooting between the couple, as the prosecution has claimed.