PRETORIA, South Africa — The first witness in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial broke down in tears Tuesday, saying she still remembers the terrified screams of a woman on the night the double-amputee Olympic athlete killed his girlfriend by shooting four times through a toilet door.
Michelle Burger, who lives near Pistorius’ home and who had been composed through two days of grueling cross-examination, wept as she finished her testimony.
Earlier the trial was interrupted and the judge ordered an investigation into allegations that a South African television channel was broadcasting a photograph of Burger — against a court order guaranteeing privacy to witnesses who request it.
Gerrie Nel, the prosecutor, asked Burger about her emotions at the time when she made her statement to police.
“It was quite raw,” Burger said, her voice breaking.
“When I’m in the shower, I relive her shouts,” she said of hearing the woman screaming before the sound of gunshots in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine’s Day last year. Burger lives about 177 meters (193 yards) from Pistorius’ house.
Nel asked her how she was coping.
“I’m coping fine,” Burger said. “It’s been a year.”
Burger’s testimony about events on the night of Feb. 14, 2013, contradicts the Olympian’s story. Pistorius says he shot four times through a toilet door, hitting Steenkamp three times in the head, arm and hip or side area after thinking she was a dangerous intruder. He pleaded not guilty to the murder charge lodged by prosecutors, who say Pistorius intentionally killed Steenkamp.
During cross-examination of Burger, Pistorius lawyer Barry Roux insisted the university lecturer was mistaken in saying that she heard a woman screaming and that she actually had heard Pistorius screaming for help in a high voice after accidentally shooting Steenkamp.
Giving sometimes grisly details of the 29-year-old model Steenkamp’s killing, Roux said Steenkamp had been shot in the head, which would have resulted in brain damage and “no cognitive function” and so she wouldn’t have been able to scream just after the last bullet struck, as Burger testified.
“With the head shot, she (Steenkamp) would have dropped down immediately,” Roux said.
Burger disagreed. “I heard her voice just after the last shot,” she said. “It faded away.”
Pistorius took notes during testimony and huddling with lawyers during adjournments. His collected demeanor contrasted with his sometimes distraught behavior during a bail hearing last year, when he often sobbed out loud and cried in court. At one point on Tuesday he covered his ears, but it wasn’t clear why.
The world-famous athlete faces a life sentence with a minimum of 25 years in prison before parole if convicted of murder with premeditation.
Judge Thokozile Masipa earlier warned the media to respect a ruling that images of witnesses who request privacy should not be shown. TV station eNCA broadcast a live audio feed of Burger’s testimony with a photograph of her, prosecutor Nel said in court. He said the photo was captioned: “On the stand: Michelle Burger, Pistorius neighbor.”
“I am warning the media, if you do not behave, you are not going to be treated with soft gloves by this court,” Masipa warned.
Another judge ruled last week that parts of Pistorius’ blockbuster trial could be broadcast on live TV — in South Africa and around the world — but witnesses who request privacy, like Burger, would not be shown. An audio only feed of their testimony would then be broadcast.