South Africa

Oscar Pistorius’s Sobbing Fit On The Witness Stand

Paralympian Oscar Pistorius broke down in court once again during his turn on the witness stand, as he remembered the night that he shot his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

Pool photo by Themba Hadebe

The public has waited for over five weeks for a glimpse into the mind of South African Paralympian Oscar Pistorius, who is currently in the witness box in Pretoria’s North Gauteng High Court to provide evidence and defend himself in the murder trial of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, whom he shot and killed on Valentine’s Day last year. The six-time gold medalist was scheduled to be sworn in at the beginning of March, but the trial was postponed due to the illness of one of the judge’s assessors.

The moment everything changed

Sobbing uncontrollably after hours of exhaustive testimony on Tuesday, Pistorius detailed the events proceeding the moment that he put four bullets through his bathroom door, killing his 29-year-old girlfriend. Pistorius maintains that he believed an intruder had entered his bathroom window by way of a ladder that had been left outside of his two-story home in Silver Woods Country Estate, an affluent gated community in Pretoria, South Africa.

Earlier in the week, the double-amputee, who was born without fibula bones in either leg, explained how his mobility and balance were both severely compromised while on his stumps, and that he felt extremely vulnerable if his prostheses were no within reach.

By his account, he had already taken his prosthetic legs off for the night when, in the early hours of the morning, he went to close a pair of sliding doors, leading onto a balcony, which had been left open earlier that evening. Steenkamp had been awake at that time, Pistorius said—a detail that he did not mention in his previous affidavit. "She rolled over to me and said 'Can't you sleep, my baba?’" he wept. As he was closing the doors, he apparently heard a noise—like a window “sliding open”—coming from the bathroom situated at the end of a hallway. He was “overcome with fear,” at which point he waded through the darkness in order to retrieve his gun from under the bed. His main intention at that moment, he said, was to protect Steenkamp.

"I just froze, I didn't know what to do,” he told the court, choking back the tears. “There's no door between the bedroom and the bathroom. I thought that somebody could be there any moment.”

“My first thought was that I needed to protect myself and Reeva, get my gun,” he continued. “That was the moment that everything changed.”

Pistorius said that as he headed down the passageway, he heard a “door slam.”

“Before I knew it, I fired four shots at the door. My ears were ringing.”

Pistorius confirmed that the house is equipped with an alarm system—a standard feature in most middle-class South African homes—and that the outside beams were activated. However, he said he was unsure whether or not ongoing renovations to his house may have obstructed the outdoor sensors.

At his defense attorney Barry Roux’s request, Pistorius returned to the stand after the court’s recess wearing clothes similar to those he was wearing on the night of the murder. He proceeded to remove his prosthetic legs so the court could gauge his height and mobility in relation to the bathroom door, which had been brought back into the courtroom.

Apologies to Reeva’s Family

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“I’m just really tired at the moment. The weight of this is extremely overbearing,” Pistorius had said one day earlier, during his appearance on the stand on Monday.

The athlete said that he’d been suffering from sleep deprivation since the night of the shooting and that he had been functioning on a combination of anti-depressants and sleeping pills, with his nights ambushed by panic attacks and “terrible nightmares.” He also said that he didn’t want to see or handle another gun again in his life.

Visibly shaken and struggling to get his words in order, Pistorius tendered a tearful apology to Steenkamp’s friends and family in attendance. If their incredulous looks were anything to go by, it fell largely on deaf ears. “There hasn’t been a moment since this tragedy happened that I haven’t thought about your family,” he said. “I can’t imagine the pain and the sorrow and the loss I caused your family.”

In the past two days, the defense has taken great care in his attempt to restore Pistorius’s image, after the alleged ‘character assassination’ conducted by the prosecution last month seemed to have left the public with a less than favorable impression of the athlete. For most of his life, Pistorius has been the picture of resilience, a fearless bitter-ender who endured both the loss of his legs at birth and the sudden loss of his mother at the young age of 15. Roux played on the athlete’s personal history throughout his examination— What his childhood was like? What about his school days playing rugby at Pretoria Boys High? What of his faith? How did he cope with the death of his mother?—apparently hoping to show why Pistorius suffered from a heightened sense of paranoia about intruders.

A pattern quickly emerged around the issue of crime. Pistorius provided several instances where he felt his space and safety had been violated, either directly or vicariously (his brother and father have both been victims of carjackings). He spoke of how he had been conditioned to fear intrusion from childhood and how his mother would also sleep with a pistol under her pillow (like Pistorius, she, too, apparently ignored government firearms regulations that recommend that firearms be locked away in a safe). He spoke of death threats, of how his suspicions inclinations had intensified due to the constant contractual developments going on at the estate (an increased presence of working-class laborers is often blamed for the spike in crime in affluent areas in South Africa), and how a 2009 boating accident that nearly maimed his face prompted a sobering reappraisal of his own mortality. How constant travel and conflicting schedules were the reason he hadn’t attended church all that much, he said, adding that he admired Steenkamp’s religious devotion to God, whom he called his refuge during this turbulent time.

‘Besotted’ with Reeva

Earlier on in Tuesday’s testimony, Roux moved over to the messages exchanged between Pistorius and Steenkamp over the social messaging platform Whatsapp. Roux instructed Pistorius to reread—and in some cases provide explanation for—some of the 1700 messages sent throughout the course of their brief courtship. He focused specifically on any strained rhetoric that the state had pounced on during its case, apparently to quash any speculation that the relationship was unstable or abusive. Pistorius insisted that his relationship with Steenkamp was the opposite: that he “was besotted with” her and that even moments where he felt "insecure and jealous" were fleeting and quickly resolved.

““I was taken aback, bowled over by how much I felt for her,” he told the court, suggesting that he was “maybe more into her than she was at times with [him].”

He also disputed various claims made by former witnesses, including Samantha Taylor (an ex-girlfriend) and former friend Darren Fresco. He said that he did not cheat on Taylor with Steenkamp, as Taylor had suggested, nor did he instruct Fresco to take the fall for him after he accidentally shot a pistol while dining at Tasha’s restaurant in Johannesburg last year. He also vehemently denied the sunroof incident, in which Pistorius was accused of firing his gun through a sunroof while driving back from the Vaal River.

Pistorius is facing two counts of reckless handling of a firearm in public in addition to a premeditated murder charger that could send him to prison for life, which holds a minimum sentence 25 years under South Africa law. The accused will return to the stand tomorrow at 3:30am ET.