PRETORIA, South Africa – Oscar Pistorius' voice started breaking on his words.
"I looked in [the toilet] … then I sat over Reeva and I cried. … I don't know how long. … I don't know how long I was there for. She … she wasn't breathing …"
He faltered into silence, chest heaving on the witness stand inside Courtroom GD, until his sobs became uncontrollable. Head in his hands, he wailed openly, wildly, his body shaking, shoulders racked with short, frantic breaths.
The Paralympian's despairing howls were met with stony-faced incredulity on half of the gallery's front bench, as Reeva Steenkamp's family and friends watched his emotional breakdown impassively.
As court was briefly adjourned, a tearful Aimee and Carl Pistorius ran to their brother, embracing him and leading him away from the witness stand.
"My client's shirt is wet. He is very emotional," defense attorney Barry Roux told the judge when proceedings resumed. "I can't responsibly ask the court to carry on." The judge agreed, ending Tuesday's testimony 30 minutes early.
It was the first time Oscar Pistorius has spoken in a courtroom of the morning he shot and killed his girlfriend. The athlete insists he believed her to be an intruder, hiding in his toilet. The prosecution says it was pre-meditated murder.
His account of events revealed Tuesday was the most detailed yet, with several crucial additions to the previous written statements read to the court during his bail hearing last year, and in his plea explanation at the beginning of his trial.
Roux led him through the pre-dawn hours of Valentine's Day last year, painting a visual narrative of Pistorius' fears in the darkness.
The Paralympian's lawyers appear to be building a case around "putative self defense," a principle in South African law which allows for a murder-accused to be found guilty of the "culpable homicide" – the equivalent of manslaughter – if he believed his life to be in danger, even though an objective observer might not agree.
The emphasis in Pistorius' testimony so far has been on his disability and vulnerability.
Seemingly having been made all the more exposed after being asked to publicly remove his prosthetic legs in court, showing his height in front of the toilet door through which he shot and killed his girlfriend, he spoke of the shooting.
It was a detailed account.
"Can't you sleep, my baba?" Pistorius says Steenkamp asked, as he woke in the early hours of Feb. 14 last year.
"I said, 'No,' " he told the court, saying he got up on his stumps, holding onto the bed as he walked over to move inside the fans whirring in his balcony doorway.
Pistorius says he then closed and locked the sliding doors, fully drawing the blackout curtains and covering with a pair of jeans the glowing LED light on his amplifier.
Then, he heard a noise.
"It sounded like the [bathroom] window sliding open, I heard the window open all the way, it hit against the frame," he told the court.
"That was the moment that everything changed.
[Slideshow: Photos of the Oscar Pistorius Trial Day 18]
In a long-sleeved white crew neck T-shirt and black shorts, having changed from his suit at the request of Roux, South Africa’s former golden boy sat isolated on the witness stand, his voice tremulous, wavering.
Pistorius had already told the court of his concern for security, his worries because construction work on his home meant his alarm wasn’t working properly, and how he lay his cricket bat on the floor in front of his locked bedroom door, a supplement for its weak latch.
"I thought there was a burglar trying to gain entry into my home. Initially I just froze," he said.
Pistorius says he thought someone was climbing into the bathroom, as he stood in the door-less bedroom passage.
"I immediately thought … they could be there at any moment. The first thing that ran through my mind, I needed to arm myself, I needed to protect Reeva and I, that I needed to get my gun," he told the court.
It was dark, he said, so he couldn't see anything, and ran with his arms outstretched in front of him, feeling his way along the side of the bed.
The athlete then retrieved and unholstered his 9mm Taurus pistol.
"I wanted to get back to where the passage was, put myself between the person who had gained access to my house and Reeva," he testified.
Then, he added, "Just as I left the bed, I whispered to Reeva to get down and phone the police," a detail not included in his previous accounts of the shooting.
Pistorius said he slowed as he approached the passage – without his prostheses – his firearm extended in his right hand.
"It was at that point I was overcome with fear and I started to shout and scream for the person to get out of my house. … I shouted for Reeva to get down on the floor. … I screamed for them to get out," he told Courtroom GD.
As he approached the bathroom entrance, the athlete said, he realized he could get shot as he went around the corner. And then – another crucial, previously omitted detail – he heard a door slam.
"It could have only been the toilet door," Pistorius said. "It confirmed there was people or a person in the toilet at the time."
As the defense prepared to show the court photographs of the bathroom passage, more photographs of Steenkamp's body flickered across the monitors. Oblivious to the angry murmurs of his family, as an early lunch adjournment was called, Pistorius leaned over and began retching.
Composed after the lunch break, Pistorius returned to his testimony. He mimed pointing the pistol into his bathroom, pictured on the court monitors, and seemingly changed his story.
"There was no light in the bathroom; I could see that the window was open," Pistorius said. So, he testified, he leaned back against the left wall. "I wasn't sure if there were people, the intruders, where they were, if they were on the toilet, or on the ladder coming in the window, or around the corner," he said, despite having already told the court he had heard the toilet door slam.
When he rounded the corner, his left hand on the wall for balance, he said he started screaming again for Steenkamp to call the police.
"My eyes were going between the window and the toilet. I stood there for some time, I'm not sure how long," he continued, his voice rising several pitches. "I wasn't sure if someone was going to come out of the toilet and attack me, or come up the ladder and fire their firearm. … I was screaming."
Pistorius voice broke into sobs.
"I heard a noise from inside the toilet that I perceived to be someone coming out of the toilet, and before I knew it I fired four shots."
Then, Pistorius said, he searched for Steenkamp in the dark, believing that there could still be intruders in the house, and when he could not find her in his bedroom – neither in bed, nor on the floor – he went back to the bathroom.
"I didn't know, I didn't want to believe it was Reeva in the toilet," he told the court. "I still thought there might be someone coming in to attack me, or us."
When he found the toilet door locked, Pistorius said he ran back to the balcony, screaming for help, before returning inside, continuing to shout.
"I don't think I've ever screamed like that or cried like that, or screamed, or cried, I was crying out for the Lord to help me, for Reeva, I was screaming," he said on the stand.
Putting his prosthetic legs on, he said he went back to the bathroom, put down his gun, and tried to kick down the door.
"I remember the light was on when I kicked the door," Pistorius said, in another deviation from his initial statement, in which he said he thought he switched on the lights only after.
When that failed, the athlete collected his cricket bat, went back to the toilet and started swinging – three times, he said.
When a plank broke away, he found the keys on the floor – and his girlfriend's bloody body. She wasn't breathing.
At that point in the testimony, the judge called for an adjournment as Pistorius broke down.
The previous evening, as he returned home to find Steenkamp making dinner for him in the kitchen, Pistorius said she had given him a Valentine's Day present, which she made him promise not to open until the day itself.
Breaking down into sobs on the stand, he told the court he waited until "the 8th of August, Reeva's birthday," to open it: a set of four specially framed photographs of the couple. Steenkamp's birthday is actually Aug. 19 – the date of Pistorius' last court appearance before his murder trial began.
In the aftermath of the shooting, a shop assistant at a party store near Pistorius' home said Steenkamp had brought the present for Valentine's Day wrapping the day before she was killed, adding that Steenkamp had said, "Oscar's crazy about Valentine's Day."
In his testimony, Pistorius said they'd agreed "not to make a big deal of it."
Defense attorney Roux was at pains to detail the loving nature of the couple's relationship, spending nearly two hours asking the athlete to read more of their private WhatsApp messages to each other, which were peppered with affectionate nicknames, smiley faces and kisses.
Pistorius described how they tried to "take it slow," after emerging from previous "difficult relationships," but had begun to make future plans together, including decorating his new home together in Johannesburg.
In the middle of January 2012, Steenkamp messaged Pistorius: "I hope you've noticed a change in my feelings towards you since Cape Town, that I let go and let you in a lot."
Two days later, she tweeted publicly, "You built your walls so high, no one could climb it. But I'm gonna try boy … Would you let me see beneath your beautiful …"
The messages offer insight into the passionate relationship of two South African celebrities: their worries about diet and weight, endorsements and contracts, and nights spent apart at public events.
They were a couple who also existed in the spotlight. Pistorius spoke of helping Steenkamp deal with the hate mail and abuse she received for dating him, implying that some of it was initiated by his ex-girlfriend, Samantha Taylor, who testified against him earlier during the trial.
On Twitter, Taylor hit back. "Last lies you get to tell.. You better make it worth your while," she tweeted, only to delete it minutes later.
On the witness stand on March 7, the diminutive Taylor accused Pistorius of cheating on her with Steenkamp and described how he fired his pistol through a sunroof in September 2012. Pistorius denies both allegations.
Addressing his other charges – the reckless discharge of a firearm on two occasions, and the illegal possession of ammunition – the Paralympian challenged the testimony of several state witnesses.
Of the car sunroof shooting, while he admitted to being "quite agitated" after they were stopped by police, he flatly denied it, despite the testimony of Taylor and Darren Fresco, the driver of the vehicle. "It never happened, my lady," he said, looking directly at the judge.
Two state witnesses – Fresco and Pistorius' friend Kevin Lerena – testified to hearing Pistorius ask Fresco to take the blame for a shot being fired accidentally in an upmarket Johannesburg bistro in January 2013, only weeks before Steenkamp's death. The athlete says he took the blame when approached by the restaurant manager Jason Loupis. Pistorius' assertion also contradicts Loupis' statement on the witness stand.
As for the illegal ammunition, Pistorius says it belongs to his estranged father Henke, and he only had it "for safekeeping."
Pistorius returns to the stand tomorrow, for a third day of testimony, but will also face some tough questions, with his cross-examination expected to begin.
- Crime & Justice
- Society & Culture
- Oscar Pistorius
- Reeva Steenkamp