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Oscar Pistorius trial Day 3: Witness timeline could cast doubt over prosecution's case

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PRETORIA, South Africa – It was a better day in court for Oscar Pistorius, who showed a brief flash of South Africa's former golden boy when he left the courtroom after proceedings on Wednesday, greeting journalists with a wink and a handshake, and hugging his family.

The damp morning brought with it some progress for the defense, as it became evident during cross-examination that the testimony of the State's third witness Charl Johnson may not necessarily contradict the Blade Runner's account of what happened in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine's morning last year, when he shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. At issue is what witnesses heard when, a distinction that could cast doubt over the prosecution's suggestion that the Olympian shot his girlfriend after an argument.

Johnson, a neighbor of Pistorius and husband of Michelle Burger who stood strong in the face of relentless questioning on Days 1 and 2 of the trial, faced a barrage of detailed questions from defense attorney Barry Roux as his wife watched from the public gallery.

Roux says phone records will prove that the banging sounds the couple heard were not gunshots, but instead a distressed Pistorius trying to get to his fatally-wounded girlfriend who was behind a locked bathroom door.

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Oscar Pistorius speaks to members of his legal team on the third day of his trial. (REUTERS)

In a grey suit and pale blue silk tie, Johnson was forced to recount his experience, minute by minute, as Roux slowly began to construct the timeline of events that he hopes will cast sufficient doubt on Pistorius' alleged intention to kill.

Awoken by a sound – he has admitted he is unsure what – Johnson says he heard screaming, and then woke his wife by jumping out of bed and running to the balcony.

As the screaming continued, Johnson says he called a security company at 3:16 a.m., speaking for 58 seconds according to his mobile phone log, before running approximately 30 feet back out to the balcony.

Then he heard the sound of what he believes to be gunshots – five or six, he says, but he wasn't counting – and more screaming, but no other sounds that could resemble the breaking of a door.

Roux says phone records will show that Pistorius called Johan Stander, the administrator of the Silver Woods housing estate, 30 seconds after 3:19 a.m.

In his account, the Olympian says he called Stander shortly after breaking the toilet door with a cricket bat.

"There can only be one thing that had happened," Roux told Johnson, "only one thing that you heard, because it coincides precisely with your time. That's why it was so good of you to give us the exact time. That was the time when he broke down the door."

[Related: Photos of Day 3 of the Oscar Pistorius trial]

"I'm convinced the sound I heard was gunshots," replied Johnson.

If that is true, then, taking the timeline and phone records into account, Pistorius would have had only approximately two minutes to shoot his girlfriend, return to the bedroom to collect a cricket bat, break down the toilet door and then call for help.

If the bangs Johnson and his wife heard were, indeed, the cricket bat on the door instead of gunshots, it means the screaming they testified to hearing took place after the shooting – consistent with Pistorius' account that Steenkamp had not called out prior to him firing his 9mm – and seemingly contrary to the prosecution's idea that Pistorius shot Steenkamp after an argument.

"People sometimes genuinely believe things," Roux told Johnson, suggesting to the witness that he has convinced himself the sounds he heard were gunshots and not a bat splintering the door.

There was much nodding and jubilant smiles from the defense bench.

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Barry Roux gestures during the trial for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp. (REUTERS)

It is a taste of what the defense team may seek to demonstrate in the coming weeks in their attempt to convince the single judge who will decide his fate that Pistorius' account of events may be consistent with what witnesses heard.

Roux asked Johnson if the screaming he heard could be that of an agonized Pistorius instead of a woman, but Johnson denied it could be the case.

Roux nodded towards Pistorius, sitting in the dock. "A man's life is at stake," he said. "Look at other possibilities."

It was a statement at which the head of the provincial government Nomvula Mokonyane took great offence.

"He [Oscar] is sitting there. Reeva is six feet underground," Mokonyane told journalists outside the courthouse, wearing a portrait of Steenkamp on her lapel. "For him to be saying that, it's so insensitive."

Accompanied by several members of the ruling party's women's league, she monitored proceedings in court, sitting at the front of the public gallery next to members of the Steenkamp family.

Mokonyane says she feels empathy with Reeva Steenkamp's mother June, who attended court on the first day of the trial, because she wanted to "look into Oscar's eyes and know the truth."

"No man has a right to take anybody's life, whatever the reasons," Mokonyane said. "Fame and popularity can't actually make Reeva's mother a forgotten individual. So I'm here. Take me as Reeva's mother."

Inside the courtroom, members of the Pistorius family shared early childhood photographs of the Olympian and Paralympian on his blades.

In a dark suit, black tie and tired eyes, Pistorius continued furiously writing notes in a leather-bound notepad emblazoned with the gold seal of South Africa's Presidency. When his friend, Kevin Lerena, took the stand for the prosecution, Pistorius took to staring at the floor.

[Related: Photos of the media frenzy at the Oscar Pistorius trial]

Lerena, a middleweight boxer who has called Pistorius a "sporting icon," described how weeks before Pistorius shot Reeva Steenkamp, the Paralympian accidentally discharged a gun under a table in a crowded Johannesburg restaurant.

Crucially, Lerena remembers Pistorius asking another friend and owner of the gun, Darren Fresco, to take the rap, an assertion that will no doubt challenge Pistorius' credibility in court.

"Just say it was you. I don't want any attention around me, just say it was you," Lerena recalls Pistorius saying to Fresco, although he said he could not recount the conversation exactly word for word.

The bullet, which left a small crater in the cream terrazzo floor, grazed Lerena's toe, and he says the Paralympian was shocked and very apologetic, wanting to make sure no one had been hurt.

Roux says Pistorius was not aware the gun was loaded, having not heard Fresco's warning that it was "one up," meaning that there was a single bullet in the chamber, and asked only to look at the gun because he was considering purchasing a similar model for himself.

The owner of the upmarket bistro Jason Loupis recalls Pistorius being very apologetic about the incident, but allowing Fresco to take the blame for the gunshot. Loupis' wife Maria says she reprimanded Fresco, hitting him over the head, adding that a child was sitting in the chair nearest Pistorius' table.

In addition to the premeditated murder of his model girlfriend, Pistorius is also charged with the reckless discharge of a firearm on two occasions – including the incident at the restaurant – and the illegal possession of ammunition.

Charl Johnson will return to the stand Thursday when the trial continues, after making his personal notes of his experience on Valentine's morning available to defense counsel.

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel has highlighted concerns around potential witness harassment after Johnson received numerous calls, including a voicemail message accusing his wife of lying in court, since his mobile phone number was read out in court and broadcast live on television earlier this week.

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