Oscar Pistorius back in court over lover's killing

PRETORIA (AFP) - South Africa's Paralympic hero Oscar Pistorius arrived at court on Tuesday for the first time since being freed on bail in February over the Valentine's Day killing of his model girlfriend.

Sporting a grey suit and blue shirt and tie, and looking tense, the sprinter known as the Blade Runner walked through the main front entrance and headed straight to a courtroom packed with media and his family.

The 26-year-old is appearing for a brief pre-trial hearing, with both defence and prosecutors seeking a postponement as police try to wrap up their investigation of the case that grabbed world headlines.

The Pretoria magistrate's court could set a date for the trial of the star sprinter who is accused of murdering Reeva Steenkamp in the early hours of Valentine's Day at his upmarket home in the South African capital.

Tuesday's hearing comes just days after a British television channel broadcast leaked crime scene pictures showing the blood-spattered bathroom where Pistorius fatally shot Ms Steenkamp multiple times through a locked door.

"The court will be told about the progress of the investigation and the matter is most likely to be postponed for trial," said lawyer Kenny Oldwage, one of the leading lights in Pistorius's high-profile defence team.

Prosecutors have charged the 26-year-old with premeditated murder.

Conviction carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.

But the athlete claims he mistook his girlfriend for an intruder in a "terrible accident" and the defence wants the charge reduced to culpable homicide, which risks up to 15 years behind bars.

Ms Steenkamp, 29, who had been dating Pistorius for just a few months, suffered gunshot wounds to her head, elbow and hip.

Her mother June told Britain's Channel 5 the couple had had disputes.

"We've been fighting, we've been fighting a lot," Ms Reeva once said in a phone call, her mother June Steenkamp remembered.

"She must have been so afraid in the toilet and somebody is firing bullets through the door. And already one bullet had hit her so she must have been in severe pain also," she said.

"We don't know what happened. There's only one person that knows what happened."

The case is bound to be one of the country's most sensational trials, similar to that of American footballer and actor OJ Simpson who was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife in 1994.

Courts in South Africa, one of the world's most violent countries, have a huge backlog of rape and murder cases. But some observers have suggested that Pistorius may get preferential treatment and a possible fast-tracking of his case.

The Johannesburg-born Paralympic champion became an inspirational hero to millions as the first double amputee to compete against able-bodied competitors at the London Olympics last year.

He was born without fibulae and both his legs were amputated when he was 11 months. His athletic prowess with his trademark blades would later earn him nicknames like "the fastest man on no legs".

Since the killing, details emerged of his rocky private life of rash behaviour, beautiful women, guns and fast cars, though his family says he has taken solace in the church.

On his aspirations, Oscar would say "God told me I've got a purpose in life," his uncle Arnold Pistorius said in an interview the family made available to media.

He admitted in an interview with British newspaper last year that he slept with a pistol, machine gun, cricket bat and baseball bat for fear of burglars.

His family said on Monday that it was shaken by the graphic crime scene photos showing bloodstains on the toilet seat and surrounding floor and the bathroom door marked with two bullet holes just below the handle.

However it continues to have "great faith" in the country's justice system and believes "that Oscar's account of what happened on that terrible night in February will be borne out by the evidence".

The position of the bullet holes appears to back Pistorius's claim that he fired the shots while standing on his leg stumps, using a gun he kept under his bed.

The police have said they do not know the source of the pictures, but that the leaks would not jeopardise their case.

A single judge will eventually hear the murder trial, as South Africa does not have a jury system.

The "traumatised" athlete openly wept when he first appeared in court after his arrest, which sent shock waves throughout the world and brought his stellar career to an abrupt halt.

His agent said last month would not be racing this season as he had to focus on the court case and was not "mentally and physically ready" to compete at high level.

Pistorius was freed on bail of one million rand (S$126,000) and in March the court lifted a raft of stringent conditions including a travel ban and mandatory drug and alcohol tests.

He has lost lucrative contracts with US sportswear giant Nike and French cosmetics firm Clarins, among others, and has reportedly also been fined about one million rand for undeclared taxes.