PRETORIA, South Africa – On a day when the defense appeared to gain ground, it is an alleged inflammatory comment from Oscar Pistorius that may eclipse the progress made by his legal team during his murder trial.
As the court adjourned to wait for the arrival of Tuesday's final witness, on his way out of the dock, the Paralympian appeared to lean over to Kim Myers – sister of his late girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp's best friend Gina – and address her.
Pistorius has not publicly interacted with the Myers family – who Steenkamp lived with in Johannesburg – since he shot and killed his girlfriend in the early hours of Valentine's Day morning last year.
Journalists sitting behind the Myers family in their regular place on the front bench of the public gallery witnessed the interaction. They say although his brief comment was made under his breath, and unheard by reporters, her reaction was immediate.
Stiffening with shock, Myers was approached by a police officer, to whom she related the athlete's alleged words: "How can you sleep at night?"
Her mother, Desi Myers, breaking weeks of media silence, turned to the media benches to say she was "furious."
When asked if the allegations were true, Pistorius denied having spoken to Kim Myers at all. "I haven't spoken to her. I've haven't spoken to them for a year and a half," he said, prior to leaving the courtroom.
“We often pass each other in the passage," he said. "They don't even make eye contact."
One of Pistorius' lawyers, Brian Webber insisted after having an animated discussion with his client that reports of Pistorius speaking to Myers were "grossly untrue."
Kim Myers, however, is sticking to her story. Her family lawyer Ian Levitt responded to the athlete's denial with incredulity and an accusation: "He's denied a whole lot of things. He's in a big process of denial. I understand he said it in the presence of some witnesses so his denial is obviously a lie."
In a statement on behalf of the Myers family, Levitt described the "unwelcome approach" from Pistorius as "extremely disturbing," confirming the Paralympian had asked Steenkamp's friend "How can you sleep at night?" in "a very sinister tone," adding that they had informed the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) – the state prosecuting body – of the remark.
Levitt said Myers was "shocked" by what happened. "She wants to continue to be at court in support of Reeva, but it's very upsetting and disturbing," he said.
When asked, Levitt suggested Pistorius may have approached his client because "he might have the slanted view that they [the Myers family] are against him." The Myers family has previously publicly described their concern about the intensity of the athlete's relationship with Steenkamp, and questioned his behavior.
The NPA confirmed prosecutor Gerrie Nel received a report of the comment in the courtroom, but said it was beyond their purview, as Kim Myers had not been called as a state witness, despite appearing on the prosecution's initial witness list.
"There was nothing that we could do," NPA spokesman Nathi Mncube told Yahoo Sports. "Our job is to prosecute not investigate."
“Whatever was said, if they believe it amounted to a criminal offense, they must register a criminal complaint with the South African Police Service, and make an affidavit," he said.
Mncube added that an allegation of witness intimidation – which would contravene Pistorius' bail conditions – would only be pertinent "if it is done with a view to compel a person to do something or refrain from doing something," but as the state case had already been closed, it was not applicable.
Before his whisper that sparked so much controversy, it had been a good day in court for the Paralympian.
Three witnesses – all immediate neighbors who share a wall with Pistorius' property – gave testimony that supports the athlete's account of events in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine's Day last year. All listed initially as state witnesses, they were not called to testify by the prosecution.
Mike Nhlengethwa, who runs a civil engineering company, and his wife Eontle, as well as Ricca Motshwane, a psychologist, all heard the same thing in the early hours of the morning: the desperate, pained, high-pitched cries of a man.
Demonstrating separately for the court, after a slightly embarrassed pause, the soft-spoken Eontle Nhlengethwa wailed piercingly from the stand, "Waaaaa … "
"But in a male voice," she added.
"There's crying when you are in danger or you need help," her husband testified. "The crying we heard was from a person very desperate for help."
Motshwane, the neighbor on the other side of Pistorius' house, described a similar sound. "Very loud, very very close," she explained, taking a breath and letting out an "Auaahhhhh! Auaahhhhh … !" – a gulping howl, punctuated by a despairing hiccup.
Crucially, all three neighbors were definitive: not one heard a woman's "terrified" screams, as several prosecution witnesses insisted.
Asked separately if the man's cries may have drowned out the female voice, all three were again clear: If there was a woman screaming, they would have heard it.
Both sets of terrified neighbors said they couldn't be sure where the noise came from, but initially believed it may have been from inside their own homes because it was so loud.
As her husband searched their own house for danger, Eontle Nhlengethwa said she went onto their balcony, only a few meters from her daughter's – which was measured to be just 18 meters from Pistorius' bedroom – and heard a shout, "Help! Help! Help!"
It matches the testimony of several state witnesses who lived at a greater distance, who heard the calls for aid, as well as the account of the murder-accused himself, who says he shouted for help from his balcony after realizing it could be Steenkamp who he had just shot in the toilet cubicle.
The state contends Pistorius knew Steenkamp was inside the locked toilet cubicle when he fired his gun four times, while the Blade Runner insists he mistook her for an intruder.
Under cross-examination, Mike Nhlengethwa and Motshwane admitted that they heard no "bangs" or shots, to which prosecutor Gerrie Nel raised his eyebrows, given their proximity to the site of the shooting.
But Eontle Nhlengethwa said she was awakened by a single shot, before she heard the male crying or calls for help – also in line with Pistorius' version of events.
Critically, the accounts of the evening from all three witnesses match the defense's timeline of events – drawn from phone logs and other witness testimony – suggesting that the second "bangs" state witnesses heard around 3:17 a.m. were indeed the sound of Pistorius attempting to break down the toilet door with a cricket bat after calling for help, as opposed to the gunshots that the prosecution insists they were.
Describing Pistorius as a "good neighbor," both women said they had never socialized with the celebrity athlete, with their interactions limited to household welcomes upon their arrival in the housing estate, and the occasional greeting.
But Mike Nhlengethwa recalled a shared passion for cars with the Paralympian, and the day he met Steenkamp.
Pulling over a white BMW Pistorius was test-driving, Nhlengethwa said the Blade Runner told him, "I would like you to meet somebody," as Steenkamp got out of the car.
"One thing that really struck me about her," Nhlengethwa told the court, "when she came towards me, basically I raised my hand to greet her, and she just opened her arms and she came and hugged me. I could see the person that she was at that time."
He said the Paralympian introduced Steenkamp as his "fiancée," telling him he planned to move to Johannesburg to be closer to her.
"It would be sad to lose a neighbor like you," Nhlengethwa said he told Pistorius, "but if it's for her, then I think it's worth it."
Apologizing for another early adjournment request, with testimony from Tuesday's three witnesses completed sooner than planned, lead defense attorney Barry Roux said he expected to complete submission of the defense's evidence by May 13, several days ahead of the court schedule.
The next witnesses are expected to include a host of forensic experts challenging the state's findings, and potentially even a psychologist to testify to Pistorius' state of mind during the shooting.
Proceedings will resume on May 8, after Wednesday's public holiday, called to allow voting in South Africa's national elections.
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