Skip to main content

Pistorius neighbor: 'Bloodcurdling screams' the night of the killing

By Richard Allen Greene and Nick Thompson, CNN
updated 12:51 PM EST, Mon March 3, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • First day of trial ends with defense lawyer hammering at witness testimony
  • Oscar Pistorius' neighbor describes "bloodcurdling screams"
  • Pistorius shot and killed Reeva Steenkamp at his Pretoria home last year
  • The double amputee Paralympic and Olympic sprinter says he mistook her for a burglar

Pretoria, South Africa (CNN) -- Talk of "bloodcurdling screams" and shots in the night took center stage Monday in the first day of testimony in the murder trial of South African amputee track star Oscar Pistorius, who killed his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, last year.

"Something terrible was happening at that house," Michelle Burger testified.

"Her shouts, her screams were petrifying," she said later.

Burger was the only witness Monday in a trial that is expected to last a few weeks. Testimony was scheduled to resume Tuesday morning.

Under questioning by prosecutors, Burger told the court that she heard a woman's screams and a man yelling for help.

Witness: I heard bloodcurdling screams
Oscar Pistorius reaches out to his uncle Arnold Pistorius and other family members as he is led out of court in Pretoria, South Africa, after being sentenced to five years in prison on Tuesday, October 21. Pistorius, the first double-amputee runner to compete in the Olympics, was sentenced for culpable homicide in the February 2013 death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. Oscar Pistorius reaches out to his uncle Arnold Pistorius and other family members as he is led out of court in Pretoria, South Africa, after being sentenced to five years in prison on Tuesday, October 21. Pistorius, the first double-amputee runner to compete in the Olympics, was sentenced for culpable homicide in the February 2013 death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
Oscar Pistorius trial
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: Oscar Pistorius trial Photos: Oscar Pistorius trial
Oscar Pistorius defense strategy revealed

"Just after 3, I woke up from a woman's terrible screams," she said. "Then I also heard a man screaming for help. Three times he yelled for help."

Burger said her husband called authorities. She later told her husband that she feared the woman had witnessed her husband being shot "because after he screamed, we didn't hear him."

Language issues caused problems after the lunch break, as defense attorney Barry Roux pressed Burger on her account during cross-examination.

She frequently had to help her Afrikaans interpreter translate her words into English, and eventually dropped speaking in her native tongue altogether.

Roux questioned Burger's timeline of events and what she heard, asking if the "bang" sounds she heard might not have been gunshots, but rather a cricket bat bashing at a bathroom door.

She answered that she had clearly heard gunshots, testily answering Roux's questions about timing, saying she "didn't sit there with a stopwatch and take down the timing of each shot."

Roux also suggested that the screams she had interpreted as being a woman's might have been the high-pitched screams of a terrified Pistorius.

"I'm 100% certain I heard two different people that evening," she responded.

He also faces weapons charges

As the trial began, Pistorius pleaded not guilty to murdering Steenkamp inside his house a year ago. He also pleaded not guilty to several weapons-related charges.

It's expected to take about three weeks for Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa to hear the case and decide whether Pistorius mistook Steenkamp for a burglar, as he says, or killed her in cold blood.

South Africa abolished jury trials in 1969.

Pistorius faces one charge of premeditated murder and a firearms charge associated with Steenkamp's killing, as well as two separate gun indictments from 2012.

In one incident, he is accused of shooting a 9 mm handgun out of the sunroof of his car. In the other, authorities say he illegally fired a Glock 27 in an outdoor cafe in 2012. A friend of the sprinter told CNN that Pistorius was showing the gun to a friend when it accidentally went off.

In South Africa, premeditated murder carries a mandatory life sentence, with a minimum of 25 years. He also could get five years for each gun indictment and 15 years for the firearms charge.

If he isn't convicted of premeditated murder, the sprinter could face a lesser charge of "culpable homicide," a crime based on negligence, and could be looking at up to 15 years on that charge, experts say.

LIVE UPDATES: Pistorius on trial for murder

Parts of Pistorius' trial are being televised live -- a first in South Africa -- after a judge's decision last week allowing cameras in the courtroom. But witnesses have the option of not having their images televised. Burger took that option, and only her voice was broadcast.

June Steenkamp, Reeva Steenkamp's mother, was in the courtroom for Monday's testimony, marking the first time she had laid eyes on Pistorius in person. The two had never met before.

Steenkamp's parents have avoided previous court appearances because they wanted privacy.

Pistorius' brother and sister were also present for Monday's proceedings.

Dream couple

Pistorius, now 27, and Steenkamp, 29, were a young, attractive, high-profile couple popular in South Africa's social circles.

Pistorius, nicknamed the "Blade Runner" because of the special prostheses he uses while running, won six Paralympic gold medals and became the first double amputee runner to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

Oscar Pistorius appears in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria on Monday, March 3. South Africa's double amputee track star is accused of the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on February 14, 2013. Oscar Pistorius appears in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria on Monday, March 3. South Africa's double amputee track star is accused of the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on February 14, 2013.
Photos: 'Blade Runner' Oscar Pistorius
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
>
>>
Photos: \'Blade Runner\' Oscar Pistorius Photos: 'Blade Runner' Oscar Pistorius
South African model Reeva Steenkamp died in February 2013 after she was shot at the home of her boyfriend, Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius. She was 29. Pistorius has been convicted of culpable homicide. South African model Reeva Steenkamp died in February 2013 after she was shot at the home of her boyfriend, Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius. She was 29. Pistorius has been convicted of culpable homicide.
Steenkamp: From law student to cover girl
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
Steenkamp: Law student to cover girl Steenkamp: Law student to cover girl
Violence in South Africa also on trial
Remembering Reeva Steenkamp

Personal essay: What my son taught me about Oscar Pistorius

Cover girl Steenkamp, who was soon to star in a TV reality show, was on the cusp of becoming a celebrity in her own right.

Everything changed before dawn on Valentine's Day 2013, as Steenkamp lay lifeless in a pool of blood on the floor of her boyfriend's house in an upscale gated community in Pretoria.

Moments before, Pistorius says, he had pointed his 9 mm pistol toward an upstairs toilet room and fired four bullets through the locked door.

INTERACTIVE: Explore each side's argument

Murder, or tragic mistake?

The sprinter's lawyers will argue he was a man deeply in love with his girlfriend who made a terrible mistake.

In court documents, Pistorius has said he heard a noise from the bathroom in the middle of the night and -- feeling vulnerable without his prosthetic legs on -- charged toward the bathroom on his stumps.

He has said he shot through the toilet door in order to protect himself and Steenkamp.

"I felt a sense of terror rushing over me," he said in his court affidavit. "There are no burglar bars across the bathroom window and I knew that contractors who worked at my house had left the ladders outside."

"It filled me with horror and fear of an intruder or intruders being inside the toilet. I thought he or they must have entered through the unprotected window. As I did not have my prosthetic legs on and felt extremely vulnerable, I knew I had to protect Reeva and myself."

READ: Oscar Pistorius' affidavit to court in full

Prosecutors are painting a different picture. They say the pair had an argument and that Steenkamp locked herself in the toilet.

At last year's bail hearing, the state said Pistorius put on his prosthetic legs, collected his gun from under the bed and walked down the hall leading from the bedroom to the bathroom before unloading a flurry of shots through the door.

Pistorius is not claiming self-defense; he is claiming to have been mistaken about his need for self-defense. He is denying that he intentionally, unlawfully killed Steenkamp. He has never denied killing her.

The case has put the spotlight on South Africa's rampant gun violence and high crime rates.

Pistorius cell phone holds vital clue
Last photos of Pistorius and lover
Oscar Pistorius Doc - Pistorius' Uncle
Legacy of Pistorius on trial

Roughly 45 people are murdered every day, according to police statistics, and the number of home burglaries is up 70% in the last decade.

In 2012, more than half of South Africans told the country's police force that they were afraid of having their homes broken into. In his affidavit, Pistorius said he had been the victim of violence and burglaries before, including death threats.

READ: Who is "Blade Runner" Oscar Pistorius?

The trial has also divided opinion in South Africa. Many of his fans find it difficult to believe a national hero could be capable of the crime he's been charged with. Others find his version of events that night implausible, and point to troubling details that the case has dredged up about Pistorius' past.

Since the shooting

Pistorius has shied away from the spotlight since the shooting and his release from jail after a highly publicized hearing.

He lives at his uncle Arnold Pistorius' house in Pretoria, and although video surfaced last year of him training, he has not officially returned to the track.

Support from his family has been unwavering.

"We have no doubt there is no substance to the allegation and that the state's own case, including its own forensic evidence, strongly refutes any possibility of a premeditated murder or indeed any murder at all," Arnold Pistorius said.

READ: Reeva Steenkamp, from model to law graduate

Steenkamp's family, meanwhile, has tried to focus on Reeva's memory -- not on the media and legal circus unfolding in Pretoria.

Her parents are seeking "closure, and to know that our daughter did not suffer on that tragic Valentine's Day," June and Barry Steenkamp said last month.

"It's not about the court case," her uncle, Mike Steenkamp, told CNN. "It's about Reeva, and Reeva can never be part of it."

At the same time, Mike Steenkamp said seeing Pistorius at the trial may bring at least some closure to what has been a harrowing year for the family.

"I would like to be face to face with him and forgive him, forgive him for what he's done. That way I can then probably find more peace."

READ: Photos show Steenkamp's transformation

READ: What life's like in a South African prison

READ: South Africa's legal system in the spotlight

READ: Case highlights South African gun culture

CNN's Richard A. Greene reported from Pretoria, South Africa, and Nick Thompson reported and wrote from London. CNN's Robyn Curnow, Ashley Fantz and Susannah Cullinane contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Oscar Pistorius
updated 5:17 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
A stuffy, overcrowded cell. Perhaps two or three men to a single bunk. Lockdown for most of the day.
updated 5:39 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
He was the so-called "Fastest Man on No Legs," and his inspiring story captured the imagination of the world at the London Olympics.
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sat September 13, 2014
The striking, platinum-haired model was gearing up for her reality television debut.
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Her name is Thokozile Matilda Masipa, and she is the woman who decided the fate of athlete Oscar Pistorius.
updated 1:45 PM EDT, Mon June 3, 2013
Reeva Steenkamp on the beach in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
Previously unseen photographs of Reeva Steenkamp show the South African beauty just months before her tragic death.
updated 12:08 PM EST, Sun February 16, 2014
The photos of Oscar Pistorius and girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp appear to show a young couple in love.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
A week before her death, South African model Reeva Steenkamp talked about her secure, blissful environment.
updated 4:13 AM EST, Mon March 3, 2014
He was the first amputee to compete at an able-bodied Olympics. Now, he's being accused of murdering his girlfriend.
updated 4:31 AM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Judge Masipa has Oscar Pistorius stand up as she reads her verdicts.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
CNN's Robyn Curnow looks back at some of the key moments in the trial.
updated 5:07 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
CNN's Robyn Curnow reflects on her visit to athlete Oscar Pistorius' home, before he was on trial for murder.
updated 3:44 AM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
Take a virtual tour of the athlete's apartment to see what happened.
updated 5:26 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Prosecutor Gerrie Nel is known as the "bull dog" in South Africa's legal circles, and it's easy to see why.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
As the athlete is grilled in court, Becky Anderson asks psychologist Dr. James Thompson about his state of mind.
ADVERTISEMENT