Oscar Pistorius trial: Witness recounts accidental shooting in restaurant
PRETORIA, South Africa (CNN) — “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius asked a friend to take the blame when he accidentally discharged a pistol under the table at a Johannesburg restaurant one month before he killed his girlfriend, another athlete testified Wednesday in the runner’s murder trial.
On the third day of the South African Olympic and Paralympic track star’s trial in Pretoria, professional boxer Kevin Lerena described how he, Pistorius and two others were having dinner at Tashas restaurant when the gun went off.
Lerena said one of the group, Darren Fresco, had passed his pistol under the table to Pistorius, telling him, “I’m one up” — an indication that there was a bullet loaded in the chamber.
“A shot went off in the restaurant and then there was just complete silence,” Lerena said.
Pistorius apologized to his friends and checked no one had been hurt, and then turned to Fresco and asked him to take responsibility, Lerena said.
“‘Please take the blame for me — there’s too much media hype around me,'” Lerena quoted Pistorius as saying to Fresco. “When the restaurant owners came up, Darren took the blame.”
Lerena was giving evidence in relation to a lesser charge brought against Pistorius of discharging a weapon in a public place. The main charge he faces is murder in the death of his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine’s Day 2013.
Pistorius has pleaded not guilty, saying it was a tragic error and he mistook her for an intruder when he shot her through a locked toilet door.
Defense pokes holes
The prosecution has sought to portray the running star as trigger-happy. Pistorius has also pleaded not guilty to the Tashas gun offense charge, and to a similar charge of putting a bullet through the sun roof of a car in a separate incident.
His defense team poked holes in the testimony of yet another witness who said he heard shouts and shooting from the Olympian’s home the night Steenkamp was killed.
Defense lawyer Barry Roux has tried to show that some of the witnesses have tailored their testimony to match one another’s. Wednesday’s witness was Pistorius’ neighbor Charl Johnson.
His wife, Michelle Burger, has already testified to hearing shouts from Pistorius’ house before a series of gunshots around 3 a.m.
Johnson told investigators he and his wife didn’t discuss their versions of events with each other. But on the stand, Johnson said he did discuss how many shots he and his wife heard and the timing of those shots.
“You and your wife could just as well have stood together in the witness box,” Roux remarked. For witnesses to be considered reliable, they have to maintain independent versions of events, Roux said. “You failed, Mr. Johnson,” he said.
The lawyer then grilled Johnson on whether what he heard that night was indeed gunshots. Roux said the sounds could have been Pistorius trying to break down the bathroom door with a cricket bat.
Wednesday’s session was shorter than the previous days. Johnson agreed to provide notes he took on the night of the shooting to the court.
On Tuesday, Roux was particularly effective in casting doubt on Burger’s claim that she heard a panic-stricken woman screaming in fear for her life before four gunshots rang out.
“We know Reeva was in the toilet. We know it was locked,” he said. “You could hear increased fear, anxiety? … You heard that out of a closed toilet in a house 177 meters away?” he demanded.
Burger said that was correct. Roux said the defense had tested it and it was impossible.
Burger called the screams “petrifying” and broke down in tears on the stand, saying: “It was awful to hear the shots.”
A second witness, another of Pistorius’ neighbors, told the court Tuesday she also was awoken by shouting on the night Steenkamp was killed. In brief testimony, Estelle van der Merwe said she heard loud voices that went on for about an hour and put a pillow over her head to try to get back to sleep. She said she heard four sounds but could not be sure what they were.
Johnson on the stand
Then it was Johnson’s turn on the stand.
Describing what he heard from his home that night, he said the “intensity and fear in (the woman’s) voice escalated and it was clear that her life was in danger.”
“That’s when the first shots were fired. I remember hearing a succession of shots,” Johnson said. “I heard the lady scream again and the last scream faded moments after the last shot was fired.”
Prosecutor Gerrie Nel, reading a report from an expert, told the court that of the four bullets that were fired toward Steenkamp: “The fourth bullet hit her in the head. She then died.”
At this remark, Pistorius clutched his head in his hands.
Pleading not guilty
Pistorius pleaded not guilty Monday to one charge of murder and a firearms charge associated with Steenkamp’s killing, as well as the two gun indictments unrelated to Steenkamp.
The trial is expected to take at least three weeks.
In South Africa, which abolished jury trials in 1969, premeditated murder carries a mandatory life sentence, with a minimum of 25 years. Pistorius also could get five years for each gun indictment and 15 years for the firearms charge.
If he isn’t convicted of premeditated murder, the sprinter could face a lesser charge of “culpable homicide,” a crime based on negligence, and could be looking at up to 15 years on that charge, experts say.
Pistorius, now 27, and Steenkamp, 29 when she died, were a young, attractive, high-profile couple popular in South Africa’s social circles.
Pistorius, whose nickname the “Blade Runner” reflects the special prostheses he uses while running, won six Paralympic gold medals and became the first double-amputee runner to compete in the Olympics, in London in 2012.
Cover girl Steenkamp, who was soon to star in a TV reality show, was on the cusp of becoming a celebrity in her own right. But on Valentine’s Day 2013 Steenkamp lay lifeless in a pool of blood on the floor of her boyfriend’s house in an upscale gated community in Pretoria.
Moments before, Pistorius said, he had pointed his 9 mm pistol toward an upstairs toilet room and fired four bullets through the locked door.
In court documents, Pistorius has said he heard a noise from the bathroom in the middle of the night and — feeling vulnerable without his prosthetic legs on — charged toward the bathroom on his stumps.
He has said he shot through the toilet door in order to protect himself and Steenkamp.
“I felt a sense of terror rushing over me,” he said in his court affidavit. “There are no burglar bars across the bathroom window, and I knew that contractors who worked at my house had left the ladders outside.”
“It filled me with horror and fear of an intruder or intruders being inside the toilet. I thought he or they must have entered through the unprotected window. As I did not have my prosthetic legs on and felt extremely vulnerable, I knew I had to protect Reeva and myself.”
Prosecutors are painting a different picture. They say the pair had an argument and that Steenkamp locked herself in the toilet.
At last year’s bail hearing, the state said Pistorius put on his prosthetic legs, collected his gun from under the bed and walked down the hall leading from the bedroom to the bathroom before unloading a flurry of shots through the door.
Pistorius is not claiming self-defense; he is claiming to have been mistaken about his need for self-defense. He is denying that he intentionally, unlawfully killed Steenkamp. He has never denied killing her.
The case has put the spotlight on South Africa’s rampant gun violence and high crime rates.
Roughly 45 people are murdered every day, according to police statistics, and the number of home burglaries is up 70% in the last decade.
In 2012, more than half of South Africans told the country’s police force that they were afraid of having their homes broken into. In his affidavit, Pistorius said he had been the victim of violence and burglaries before, including death threats.
CNN’s Richard Allen Green reported from Pretoria. Emily Smith, Robyn Curnow, Nick Thompson, Ashley Fantz and Susannah Cullinane contributed to this report.