PRETORIA, South Africa – The name of the victim in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial – his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp – was barely mentioned in the first two days of testimony. She appeared almost as a shadow: the voice of a woman described by witnesses screaming, petrified for her life.
But if Steenkamp’s name was barely mentioned, her fate cast a long emotional shadow in the courtroom.
Pistorius, who in 2012 won acclaim for becoming the first amputee athlete to compete in the Olympics, killed Steenkamp in the early hours of Valentine’s Day last year when he shot through a closed door. According to prosecutors he fired four shots, including one that hit her head.
He pleaded not guilty to murder and contends he mistook her for an intruder. He has also pleaded not guilty to two counts of recklessly using a firearm and another of having ammunition without a license.
His neighbor, Michelle Burger, burst into tears Tuesday recalling the raw emotion of the woman’s screams she says she heard on the night Steenkamp died, and the shots that followed.
Burger gave evidence Monday that she heard the blood-curdling screams of a terrified woman who knew her life was in danger. She told the court Tuesday that she has not recovered from the trauma. The memory of that voice haunts her every time she takes a shower.
Discrediting Burger is crucial to Pistorius’ case. Her testimony about a woman screaming before the four shots is incompatible with Pistorius’ story that all he heard was a bathroom window sliding open, took it for an intruder, went to the bathroom and fired through a door into an enclosed toilet in order to protect himself and Steenkamp.
Defense advocate Barry Roux’s intense cross-examination of Burger over most of Monday and Tuesday morning, as he sought to puncture her credibility, apparently left her emotionally fragile. Minutes after the cross-examination ended, she burst into tears.
Roux contended that Burger was convinced of Pistorius’ guilt and had retrospectively embellished her story based on what she had heard on the news. Roux suggested that the screaming Burger heard was Pistorius, not Steenkamp.
Over many hours of cross-examination, however, Burger insisted she had heard a woman’s screams. She said that when she heard news reports detailing Pistorius’ version, she couldn’t understand why the celebrated athlete didn’t talk about the screams.