Oscar Pistorius stands in the dock during his trial for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. REUTERS/Herman Verwey/Pool
The first witness at Oscar Pistorius' murder trial told the
court she heard "bloodcurdling screams" from a woman followed
by shots, a dramatic opening to a case that could see one of
global sport's most admired role models jailed for life.
Taking the stand after the Paralympic and Olympic star
pleaded not guilty to murdering his girlfriend, model Reeva
Steenkamp, on Valentine's Day last year, neighbour Michelle
Burger testified that she was woken in the middle of the
night by a woman shouting for help.
"I was still sitting in the bed and I heard her screams,"
Burger, who lives 177 metres from Pistorius' home in an
adjacent housing complex, told the Pretoria High Court.
"She screamed terribly and she yelled for help. Then I also
heard a man screaming for help. Three times he yelled for
help," she said, speaking in Afrikaans through an
Thinking it was a violent break-in - a possibility in
crime-ridden South Africa - Burger said her husband called
the private security firm guarding their upmarket Pretoria
housing estate before the pair heard more shouts.
"I heard the screams again. It was worse. It was more
intense," said Burger, a Pretoria University economics
lecturer. "She was very scared," she added, her voice
cracking with emotion.
"Just after her screams, I heard four shots. Four gun-shots,"
she said. "Bang ... bang, bang, bang."
"It was very traumatic for me. You could hear that it was
bloodcurdling screams." After the final shot, the screams
"started fading", she added later.
Throughout Burger's testimony, the 27-year-old Pistorius -
described by Time magazine in 2012 as "the definition of
global inspiration" and named as one of the world's 100 most
influential people - sat impassively in the courtroom,
staring at the floor.
The athlete, who was born without lower legs but reached the
2012 Olympic 400 metres semi-final using carbon-fibre
"blades", argues that Steenkamp's killing was a tragic
accident after he mistook her for an intruder hiding in the
Burger steadfastly maintained her testimony despite a probing
cross examination by lead defence advocate Barry Roux.
After the first day's hearing, Pistorius left the court
through a scrum of photographers and television cameras
before being bundled into a waiting silver SUV.
Earlier, a sombre Pistorius, dressed in dark suit, white
shirt and black tie, stood before Judge Thokozile Masipa to
plead 'not guilty' to murdering law graduate Steenkamp, a
women's rights campaigner and familiar face on South Africa's
celebrity party scene.
He also pleaded 'not guilty' to several other firearms
charges, including one of discharging a pistol under the
table of a posh Johannesburg restaurant and another of
putting a bullet through the sun-roof of a former
When he entered the packed courtroom, Steenkamp's mother,
June, followed him with her gaze. Her father, Barry, was not
in court after recently suffering a stroke.
Prosecutors are seeking to prove that Pistorius fired four
rounds from a 9 mm pistol through the door of the toilet in a
deliberate attempt to kill whoever was behind it.
Steenkamp was hit three times, in the head, arm and hip. She
was declared dead at the scene.
In his opening address, lawyer Kenny Oldwage, who with Roux
forms part of Pistorius' defence team, sought to portray the
state's allegations as an unwarranted character assassination
of a young man deeply in love.
If the state succeeds in convincing Masipa of intent to kill,
Pistorius could get life, in all likelihood a minimum of 25
years behind bars.
At his bail hearing last year, he admitted to culpable
homicide, equivalent to manslaughter, which could see him put
away for 15 years - or he could leave court a free man, with
no more than a slap on the wrist and a suspended sentence.
Coming less than a month after the rape, disembowelling and
murder of a teenager near Cape Town, the shooting of
Steenkamp caused outrage and drew further attention to the
high levels of violence against women in South Africa.
The trial before Masipa - juries were abolished by the
apartheid government in the 1960s - is set to last a minimum
of three weeks but with as many as 107 witnesses waiting to
be called by either side it is almost certain to last far
The proceedings have attracted massive media attention, with
hundreds of foreign and domestic media camped outside the
court, a reflection of Pistorius' status as a global symbol
of triumph over physical adversity.
The trial is also being broadcast live, a first for South
Africa, where, two decades after the end of apartheid, the
justice system is often accused of favouring the rich and
wealthy, who can afford the best lawyers and forensic