Oscar Pistorius apologises for killing Reeva Steenkamp
- 7 April 2014
- From the section Africa
An emotional Oscar Pistorius has apologised to the family of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, on the first day of his evidence at his murder trial.
In a trembling voice, he said he was "trying to protect" her and said he could not imagine the family's pain.
Mr Pistorius said he suffered "terrible nightmares" and often woke up smelling Ms Steenkamp's blood.
Prosecutors say he killed her in February 2013 after an argument. He says he mistook her for an intruder.
The athlete told Ms Steenkamp's relatives that there "hasn't been a moment since this tragedy happened that I haven't thought about your family".
"I wake up every morning and you're the first people I think of, the first people I pray for. I can't imagine the pain and the sorrow and the emptiness that I've caused you and your family.
"I was simply trying to protect Reeva. I can promise that when she went to bed that night she felt loved.
"I've tried to put my words on paper many, many times to write to you. But no words will ever suffice."
In the packed Pretoria courtroom, Ms Steenkamp's mother, June, sat stony-faced while he spoke.
Mr Pistorius said he was taking anti-depressants and sleeping pills.
"I'm scared to sleep, I have terrible nightmares, I can smell blood and wake up terrified," he said.
He added that he never wanted to handle a gun again.
The athlete, 27, told the court about his difficult childhood after being born with parts of both legs missing and needing to wear prosthetic limbs.
After a recess, Mr Pistorius was asked whether he and his family had been exposed to criminal acts.
He said there had been many break-ins while he was growing up.
Mr Pistorius said on one occasion he was followed by a car into his gated community. He said he had his gun with him and the two men in the car had sped off.
On another occasion, he said he had drawn his firearm as he tried to protect a taxi driver who was being assaulted.
Mr Pistorius testified: "They started beating him with rocks in his face and in his head. At that point I jumped the lights. I hooted until I pulled up. I drew my firearm. I pointed it at the three people. They jumped in the taxi. They sped off."
Mr Pistorius said he was also attacked at a party in December 2012, and had to have stitches in the head.
Mr Pistorius then detailed how important religion was to him, saying: "When I met Reeva, I think it was just a blessing. I've always wanted to have a partner that was a Christian. She was a very strong Christian."
He then became emotional again as he said "my God's a God of refuge" and his counsel, Barry Roux, asked for an adjournment.
The prosecution said that as long as this was not a daily occurrence there would be no objection and the case will resume on Tuesday morning.
The BBC's Pumza Fihlani in court says the defence team has been trying to paint a picture of a man whose life has been peppered with tragedy, fear and vulnerability.
Mr Roux said he would call 14 to 17 witnesses to testify on "ballistics, urine emptying, damage to the toilet door, sound, and disability and vulnerability".
Pathologist Jan Botha was the first defence witness.
Mr Botha, a private pathologist who said he has carried out about 25,000 autopsies, was asked about gastric emptying and calculating Ms Steenkamp's time of death.
Earlier in the trial, the state called forensic pathologist Gert Saayman who said vegetable matter in Ms Steenkamp's stomach suggested she had eaten around two hours prior to her death, which contradicted Mr Pistorius' version of events.
Mr Botha disputed this conclusion, saying that determining the time of death through gastric emptying is guesswork, calling it a "highly controversial and inexact science".
Prosecutor Gerrie Nel was fierce in his cross-examination of Mr Botha and sought to suggest that his evidence was unreliable since he did not attend Ms Steenkamp's autopsy and worked from photographs.
The pathologist accepted that he was "not a ballistician" after appearing to contradict the state's account of the sequence of shots that killed Ms Steenkamp.
But he insisted he was not there to "win the case for either the defence or the prosecution" after being accused by Mr Nel of making his findings fit with the defence case.
"I'm here to assist the court," Mr Botha said.
The trial has already heard 15 days of prosecution-led testimony, which has relied on accounts from neighbours and specialist ballistics experts, as well forensic and mobile phone evidence.
One neighbour, Michelle Burger, told the court she was awoken by a woman's "terrible screams" followed by gun shots.
The athlete aims to convince the court that the screams were his, and that he shot Ms Steenkamp through a closed toilet door because he had mistaken her for an intruder.
The defence is also likely to address key questions, including allegations that Mr Pistorius was reckless with guns and in not checking the whereabouts of his girlfriend before he opened fire.
Ms Steenkamp, a model, reality TV celebrity and law graduate, was hit by at least three bullets while in the toilet cubicle of Mr Pistorius' home in Pretoria on 14 February 2013, Valentine's Day.
Mr Pistorius is a double amputee who holds six Paralympic medals and competed in the 2012 Olympic Games.
If found guilty, the 27-year-old - dubbed the "blade runner" because of the prosthetic limbs he wore to race - could face life imprisonment.
Mr Pistorius said in his statement at the start of the trial that he woke in the early hours and walked on his stumps to the balcony, pulled in two fans, closed the sliding door and drew curtains. He said that shortly before he had spoken to Reeva, who was in bed beside him.
He said he rejected prosecution claims that a witness heard arguing coming from the house before the shooting.
2. Bathroom window×
Mr Pistorius said he heard the bathroom window sliding open and believed that an intruder, or intruders, had entered the bathroom through a window which was not fitted with burglar bars.
"Unbeknown to me, Reeva must have gone to the toilet in the bathroom at the time I brought in the fans," he said.
Mr Pistorius said he approached the bathroom armed with his firearm, to defend himself and his girlfriend, believing Ms Steenkamp was still in bed.
Both sides agree four bullets were fired. Ms Steenkamp was hit three times.
Mr Pistorius said he fired his weapon after hearing a noise in the toilet which he thought was the intruder coming out of the toilet to attack him and Ms Steenkamp.
He said he was in a fearful state, knowing he was on his stumps and unable to run away or properly defend himself.
Mr Pistorius said he rejected claims that he was on his prostheses when he shot at the door.
A witness told the trial she woke to hear a woman screaming and a man shouting for help. She said that after the screams she heard four shots.
Mr Pistorius said he went back to the bedroom after shooting at the toilet door, still shouting for Reeva. Lifting himself up onto the bed, he felt over to the right hand side of it and noticed Ms Steenkamp was not there.
Mr Pistorius said this was when he realised she could have been in the toilet.
5. Toilet door×
Mr Pistorius said he went back to the bathroom but the toilet was locked, so he returned to the bedroom, pulled on his prosthetic legs, turned on the lights before bashing in the toilet door with a cricket bat.
Forensics expert Johannes Vermeulen told the court that the height of the marks on the door caused by the cricket bat suggest Mr Pistorius was on his stumps at the time.
6. Emergency calls×
Mr Pistorius's defence team say he then called security at the gated housing complex and a private paramedic service before carrying Ms Steenkamp downstairs.
A security guard claimed it was the other way round, and he had called Mr Pistorius first after reports of gunfire. However, phone records shown to the court revealed Mr Pistorius called the estate manager at 3:19am, a minute later he called the ambulance service and at 3:21am he called estate security.
A minute later he received an incoming call - estate security calling him back.
According to police phone expert Francois Moller, Mr Pistorius called his friend Justin Divaris a short time later and just after 4:00am he called his brother Carl.