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Oscar Pistorius trial: Key witness still relives 'terrifying screams'

Published on Mar 4, 2014 10:44 PM
Oscar Pistorius leaves Pretoria's North Gauteng High Court on March 4, 2014, on the second day of South African amputee Olympian sprinter Pistorius' murder trial, accused of murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. A key witness who testified to hearing screams and then gunshots from Oscar Pistorius' home the night his girlfriend was killed, broke down and wept in court on Tuesday, March 4, 2014, saying she still relives the "terrifying screams" she heard. -- PHOTO: AFP

PRETORIA (AFP) - A key witness who testified to hearing screams and then gunshots from Oscar Pistorius' home the night his girlfriend was killed, broke down and wept in court on Tuesday, saying she still relives the "terrifying screams" she heard.

In an emotive second day of the South African Paralympian's murder trial, a shaken Michelle Burger sobbed after tough cross-examination, saying the events of Valentine's Day 2013, when Ms Reeva Steenkamp was killed, still haunted her.

"When I'm in the shower, I relive her shouts. The terrifying screams," she told the North Gauteng High Court.

The university lecturer has testified that she heard screams, then gunshots, then more screams from Pistorius' Pretoria home less than 200 metres away from her own.

Her account of events directly contradicts the sports star's claim that he shot Ms Steenkamp after mistaking her for an intruder.

Tuesday's proceedings began with Pistorius's lawyer redoubling efforts to pick apart Dr Burger's account of events, accusing her of jumping to conclusions.

"You made up your mind that his version could not be," said defence advocate Barry Roux.

"You interpreted cricket bat shots to be gunshots and screaming to be a woman and not Oscar. If you didn't do that, his version would make sense."

Criminal law advocate Dave Smith, who is not linked to the case, told AFP that Dr Burger "looks solid as a rock" in the witness stand.

"It's important to prove her wrong but I don't think he will," he said. "I'm happy I'm not him."

Tensions in court were further heightened when a statement was read explaining the violent nature of the 29-year-old model and law graduate's death.

As Mr Roux claimed a gunshot wound to the head would have made it impossible for Ms Steenkamp to scream, Pistorius bowed his head and folded his hands behind his neck.

"The person with that brain damage will have no cognitive response," continued Mr Roux. "It cannot be. She could not have screamed."

Prosecution lawyer Gerrie Nel interjected to say it was the last of four shots that struck Ms Steenkamp's head, the first two hitting her right side, the wall and her shoulder.

Meanwhile, across the court, one of Ms Steenkamp's relatives touched a photo of the budding reality TV star, as a man put his arm around her.

Pistorius, 27, a double amputee known as the "Blade Runner" for his carbon-fibre running blades, has pleaded not guilty to murder and three unrelated gun charges.

While admitting killing Ms Steenkamp, the sprinter described it as a "tragic accident", denying murderous intent and saying "we were in a loving relationship".

If found guilty of premeditated murder, Pistorius faces 25 years in South Africa's notoriously brutal jails and an abrupt end to his glittering sporting career.

His defence came under further attack on Tuesday when another neighbour Estelle van der Merwe, who lives less than 100 metres away, told the court she heard arguing coming from Pistorius' home on February 14, 2013.

"I woke up the morning at 1.56am to sounds of someone talking loudly and fighting," she told the court. "It lasted about an hour." Later she recalled waking up to the sound of loud bangs.

Ms Van der Merwe has yet to come under cross-examination.

As well as relentlessly trying to pick holes in the testimony of state witnesses, the defence is also expected to call into question the reliability of the prosecution's forensics.

Pistorius walked free on bail a year ago as the chief detective and the prosecution's star witness, Hilton Botha, was sacked amid a scandal over botched handling of evidence.

A single judge, Thokozile Masipa, aided by two assistants, will rule in the case, which has already been likened to the murder trial of American footballer OJ Simpson over the killing of his ex-wife and a friend in 1995.

With a landmark ruling allowing the trial to be partly televised, Judge Masipa on Tuesday slammed the media for showing a photograph of Dr Burger.

The witness had requested her image not be shown while the audio of her testimony was broadcast.

"I must say this is very disturbing, I am warning the media, if you do not behave, you will not be treated with soft gloves," she warned.

The trial is expected to last three weeks.