Oscar Pistorius Trial Day 17: Blade Runner wakes to the 'smell of blood'

Oscar Pistorius Trial Day 17: Blade Runner wakes to the 'smell of blood'
Oscar Pistorius Trial Day 17: Blade Runner wakes to the 'smell of blood'

PRETORIA, South Africa – These days, Oscar Pistorius is too scared to sleep.

Some nights, the Blade Runner wakes to the "smell of blood," terrified.

"I have terrible nightmares about things that happened that night," he told the court Monday. "If I hear a noise, I wake up, just, in a complete state of terror."

It was fear of a different kind, he contends, that led to what happened in the early hours of Valentine's morning last year, when he shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

In the months after the shooting, Pistorius says he couldn't sleep for weeks, losing a significant amount of weight. He is now on a changing cocktail of sleeping tablets and anti-depressants.

It is the first time the court has heard testimony from his own mouth.

The athlete has so far given two written statements – a detailed account of events during his bail hearing, which he then supplemented at the beginning of the trial – both of which were read aloud to the court Monday by his lawyers.

Pistorius insists he believed Steenkamp to be an intruder, and he fired out of "horror and fear," feeling vulnerable on his stumps. The prosecution says it was pre-meditated murder.

The Paralympian began his emotional testimony with a request.

His voice quivering, he turned to Steenkamp's mother, June, sitting in the front row of the public gallery:

"I would love to take this opportunity to apologize to … to Mr. and Mrs. Steenkamp, to Reeva's family, to those of you who knew her and are here today. … There hasn't been a moment since this tragedy happened that I haven't thought about your family.

"I wake up every morning and you're the first people I think of, the first people I pray for. I can't imagine the pain and the sorrow and the emptiness that I've caused you and your family."

Pistorius' voice broke on the words.

Reeva's mother has always said she wants answers. "He shot her until she was dead. I want to know what happened," June Steenkamp told journalists after her daughter's funeral last year. "Her whole life we protected her, but from this, we couldn't protect her."

In court, Pistorius mirrored her words.

"I was simply trying to protect Reeva," Pistorius told June, his voice breaking. "I can promise that when she went to bed that night she felt loved."

Now, on some nights, he wakes terrified in the dark, the athlete told the court. On one occasion, he couldn't calm himself, "so I climbed into the cupboard and phoned my sister to come sit with me – calm me down," Pistorius said. He now has a security guard who stands outside his front door.

"I don't ever want to handle a firearm again or be around a firearm," he told the court.

This is a departure from his approach to guns prior to the shooting, when he placed an order for seven more firearms, including several semi-automatic weapons. The order was canceled in the days after the shooting, Pistorius' gun trainer has testified.

Defense attorney Barry Roux spent the afternoon painting the quiet young man on the stand as a staunch Christian who overcame his disability, a tragic childhood and the trauma of his mother's death, pushing himself to become a world-class athlete and inspiration for landmine victims.

He guided Pistorius' life narrative; from his love of dogs – having rescued an abused pit bull – to his love of Reeva Steenkamp.

"I was bowled over by how much I felt for her," the athlete told the court, saying he had even put in an offer on a property in the nearby city of Johannesburg only a few months into their relationship in order to be closer to her.

Roux pressed the 27-year-old Paralympian on his use of drugs and alcohol, affording the athlete the opportunity to explain that he only drinks during the few months of the year when he is not training, and that he has never used illicit substances, except smoking some marijuana after his mother's death (when he was 15).

But above all, Roux allowed his client to vividly describe his fear of crime – a defense that under South African law, could potentially save him from a murder conviction.

Pistorius says he grew up in a house where his father was largely absent and his mother kept a pistol under her pillow. He says the family once returned to his father's home in Johannesburg to find it ransacked after a holiday, with blood smeared on the walls. When he lived with his mother, small items, such as televisions, were taken, Pistorius said.

"Many family members have been victims of house break-ins and violent crime," including his father and brother, who both had their vehicles hijacked, the Paralympian told the court.

Roux is also outlining his case for an international audience.

"Everybody in South Africa has been exposed to crime at some point," Pistorius said.

[Related: South African's fear of 'imaginary intruder']

The athlete said he also had his home broken into while he was away competing at the Paralympic World Cup in 2005, has been shot at on the highway and has been followed by cars "more than once." Pistorius described in detail several assaults he witnessed, including one in which he intervened, pointing his 9mm Taurus at a group of men who were beating another driver's head with rocks on the side of the road.

Pistorius said he had been the victim of an assault at a party in 2012, during which he received a black eye and had to have stitches on the back of his head. He said he reported the incident to a specialized unit of the South African Police Service – who issued a warning to his attacker – but chose not to press charges in an attempt to avoid media attention.

During state witness testimony, the prosecution highlighted that, according to police records, Pistorius has never reported a single incident of crime. Prosecutor Gerrie Nel also detailed crime trends in the athlete's neighborhood, implying that violent crimes were few and far between there.

Pistorius, increasingly calm and confident on the witness stand, spoke of an incident where intruders entered a house in his estate, tying up the maid and stealing electronic goods. He spoke of Silver Woods estate's electric fence, fortified because of perceived threats, and of an alleged car-hijacking syndicate nearby.

Legal experts say if the Paralympian can show that he was convinced he was in mortal danger when he fired his gun four times through his toilet door – even if he was objectively under no threat – he may be found guilty of "culpable homicide," the South African equivalent of manslaughter, instead of murder.

Much of the defense's case hangs on Pistorius' disability. A double amputee, he told Judge Thokozile Masipa of his difficult childhood, how he was bullied at school and tried to be accepted by his friends. The judge watched his testimony intently, resting her cheek in one hand.

The Paralympian said he had been hospitalized on several occasions, due to blood clots formed on long flights with his prostheses in uncomfortable positions. And even with his technologically advanced plastic legs, the skin on his stumps rubs away.

Crucially, the athlete says he has trouble balancing on his stumps – his right one a full centimeter longer than his left. Both heel pads, which were surgically attached after his double amputation when he was just an infant, are now causing trouble, to the point he is considering another operation.

"It throws my weight off completely," Pistorius said, "I can't stand still without holding onto something. I have to move around continuously. … My dog could knock me over without my prosthetic legs on."

Both prosecution and defense agree that Pistorius was not wearing his prostheses when he fired the shots, but differ on whether he was on his stumps when he broke the bathroom door with a cricket bat. Pistorius contends he had put on his prostheses, while a prosecution witness testified he believes Pistorius was on his stumps.

His vulnerability on his stumps – and his ability to balance, fire a gun and hit a door – will be under scrutiny.

Pistorius was emotional during the morning's testimony from the first defense witness, private pathologist Dr. Jan Botha, as close-up graphic images of the injuries he inflicted on Steenkamp flashed up on Courtroom GD's eight television monitors.

Botha debated with an argumentative Nel about a critical element of the prosecution’s case: whether Steenkamp would have screamed from behind the toilet door as the shots struck her, thus alerting Pistorius to her presence.

Initially the pathologist – a defense consultant who was not present at the autopsy – insisted that Steenkamp would have felt "shock, panic, fear, and possibly pain," but might not have cried out if the gun shots were in rapid succession, as she may have taken several seconds to register what was going on.

Nel pointed out that both prosecution and defense agree that Steenkamp was in fear, either of Pistorius himself or the intruder he had shouted about, so she could not have been taken by complete surprise. In a blow for the defense, Botha eventually admitted it was likely that Steenkamp would have screamed, had the gunshots been fired over more than a few seconds.

Botha also confirmed state pathologist Gert Saayman's testimony that determinations from "gastric emptying" – how long ago Steenkamp had last eaten – are speculative, derived from a "highly controversial and inexact science." Saayman testified that the contents of Steenkamp's stomach suggested she had eaten around two hours prior to her death, a contradiction to Pistorius' version of events.

Botha said it is likely Steenkamp "voided her bladder very shortly before her death," up to 15 minutes before, implying that was the reason she may have gone to the toilet – a challenge to Saayman's testimony that it could have been up to an hour.

As Botha testified, Pistorius covered his head and put his thumbs in his ears.

"I really put a lot of faith into the Lord. When I met Reeva, it was a blessing to have a partner that was a Christian," Pistorius said when he took the stand, describing how they would pray together every night and before every meal.

"I've really struggled," Pistorius said. "It [my faith] was the thing that got me through this last year. … My God is a God of refuge."

Proceedings were adjourned early at Roux's request "out of concern for the young man," he said.

Pistorius said he didn't sleep the night before his testimony. "I'm very tired at the moment. … A lot of things obviously going through my mind."

"He looks tired. He sounds tired," Judge Masipa agreed.

Pistorius will take the stand again tomorrow.

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