Legendary Paralympian Oscar Pistorius took the stand for the first time today at his murder trial, opting to start by apologizing to the victim Reeva’s family and friends for the pain he has caused them. Fighting back tears, with his voice breaking, he said there had not been a day since the tragedy happened that he had not woken up and thought of them. He said he has had terrible nightmares, sleepless nights, and can still smell the blood more than a year after the killing.
Pistorius has been charged with the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, whom he gunned down in a toilet cubicle at his Pretoria home on Valentine’s Day last year. While he admits to the killing, he maintains it was a terrible accident, and he thought the person in the toilet was an intruder. He has pleaded not guilty to the charge, as well as three other charges related to firearms, and what the prosecution has tried to prove show he has a blatant disregard for gun safety.
The trial began on March 3, 2014 and was set down for three weeks. It was later extended until May 16, with a break that would have taken place this week. However, after a two-day adjournment once the prosecution had concluded its case, on Friday March 28 Judge Thokozile Masipa adjourned the case until today because one of her two assessors was ill and unable to attend the trial. South Africa does not have a jury system, and in a trial of this magnitude, two assessors assist the judge in his or her decisions throughout the course of the case.
It was widely reported that the accused, Oscar Pistorius, would be the first person to testify in his own defense – because this is the usual strategy. But today’s first witness was Prof. Jan Botha, a highly qualified forensic pathologist. Last week, during the adjournment, one of the famous blade runner’s lawyers, Brian Webber was quoted as saying they had no choice but to put Botha on the stand first. The pathologist, Webber said, had “personal reasons” for wanting to be the first witness.
His evidence covered the controversial “gastric emptying” of Reeva Steenkamp’s stomach, relating to evidence given by the State to prove when the deceased last ate before she was killed. Botha maintained that any evidence of this kind was unreliable because it was not an exact science and there was no agreement in medical fields about it.
He also gave evidence relating to the gunshots that killed Reeva, stating that she was first hit in the hip, then the arm, her hand, and lastly in her head. He could not though relate these shots to the bullet holes in the toilet door that has been a vital piece of evidence since the start of the trial. In cross-examination he admitted to Gerrie Nel, the state prosecutor, that “any shooting is a dynamic situation” and so to try and work out what happened in reality was difficult. He also stated that dogmatism in forensic medicine was “dangerous and misleading.”
Much of Botha’s evidence was graphic, relating to stomach contents, blood spatters and horrific wounds. Reeva’s parents were in court and mostly appeared composed, though very grim. Pistorius spent much of the time during the morning’s session clutching his head and even sticking his fingers in his ears as if he did not want to hear what was being said. He also vomited into a plastic bucket on several occasions.
Oscar Pistorius Gives Evidence in his own Defense
After calling the accused to the stand, defense advocate Barry Roux announced that Oscar Pistorius wanted to say something first, before giving evidence in his own defense. Clearly choking back the tears, Pistorius said that Reeva’s family were now the first people he thought of when he woke up every morning and he couldn’t “imagine the pain I have caused.” He promised that when she had gone to bed the night before her death, “she was very loved.” He said he had tried to write to the family on many occasions to tell them how he felt, “but no words would ever suffice.”
Talking quietly, and choking up, Oscar Pistorius described the horrible nightmares he has about what happened in the early hours of Valentine’s Day 2013. He said he can still smell Reeva’s blood when he wakes up in the middle of the night in “a complete state of terror,” and would rather not sleep “than wake up like this.” The fact that he has these sleepless nights, he said, had led to him being prescribed several medications for depression, anxiety and an inability to sleep.
Evidence was that Oscar has never returned to his home in Pretoria where he killed his girlfriend, but instead he now lives on the same property as his younger sister Aimee. He told the Court that he never wants to handle a firearm again, and now has a fulltime security guard outside his front door at night. But his night terrors continue, and one night he was so frightened he climbed into a cupboard and called Aimee to help him and “sit by me.”
Prompted by Roux, Pistorius gave evidence about his family history, and explained how and why his lower legs were amputated when he was an infant. He told how his parents divorced when he was young and how his mother, “a fantastic parent” remarried and then died suddenly when he was a teenager at boarding school. He also gave evidence about problems with some of the early prosthetic legs he has had. He talked about his introduction to sport, in spite of his disability, and how he had participated in a wide range of able-bodied sports including football, cricket, tennis, canoeing, wrestling, rugby and ultimately athletics. He told the Court how he had been bullied at school a few times, and how he had coped in several situations.
Much of the testimony was about security concerns, and he told how his mother kept a pistol in a padded leather bag under her pillow because their father was not at home and she was scared. He said she often called the police because they did not live in a good neighborhood. She would call him and his older brother Carl and younger sister Aimee into the bedroom to wait until the police arrived.
Part of today’s evidence also related to his stumps and focused on the fact that they are not the same length. He said a heel pad that was attached to one stump has rotated and further surgery will be necessary to rectify this. His balance while on his stumps, he said, is bad – even his pet Jack Russell could knock him over. He also highlighted some of the charitable work he has done since 2004.
In 2009 Oscar was involved in a boating accident, and he described the incident to the Court. He said while he had been drinking prior to the incident he was not intoxicated. He was badly injured in the accident and was put into an induced coma for several days. His jaw was wired closed for four to five weeks and he had about 170 stitches in his face. He lost muscle and weight and his athletic career was compromised.
His advocate Barry Roux questioned him about drugs and alcohol, and he painted a picture of drinking only between Christmas and New Year and during September and October when he was not training or competing. He said the only “drug” he had ever used was “dagga” (marijuana) he smoked with a friend after his mother died. He said he had always been “meticulous” about supplements and had never taken anything that was “sports enhancing.”
Oscar then went on to give evidence about a number of crimes that he and his family and friends have been exposed to over time. These included housebreaking and vehicle hijackings. Several incidents have already been mentioned during the State’s evidence.
He ended the day’s evidence on a religious note saying, “I always knew the Lord was always part of my life.” When he traveled abroad (which was often), he would attend church services even if he could not speak the language, he said. He told the Court he had always wanted a partner who was a Christian, and was thrilled Reeva would pray for him every day. “God has got me through this past year,” he said, breaking down and very tearful after hours of confident and composed evidence. So, having heard Oscar Pistorius has sleepless nights and he admits he can still smell Reeva’s blood, even though he has never returned home, the Court heard that he was now “exhausted” and needed a break. Judge Masipa agreed that he looked and sounded exhausted and adjourned the case until tomorrow.
By Penny Swift