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Oscar Pistorius tells court girlfriend was killed accidentally

The South African runner says he thought he was shooting at an intruder. But the charge of premeditated murder stands.

February 19, 2013|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • Oscar Pistorius appears at a bail hearing in Pretoria, South Africa. At one point, he wept uncontrollably.
Oscar Pistorius appears at a bail hearing in Pretoria, South Africa. At… (European Pressphoto Agency )

PRETORIA, South Africa — Coldblooded, planned murder or a terrible, heartbreaking accident? The competing versions of the killing of model and law school graduate Reeva Steenkamp by her superstar boyfriend, Oscar Pistorius, offered in court Tuesday were compelling, each in its own way.

Pistorius, the double amputee athlete who competed in last year's London Olympic Games, wept so uncontrollably that at one point Chief Magistrate Desmond Nair had to pause the proceedings so the runner could compose himself.

In the prosecution's version, Steenkamp cowered terrified behind the locked door of an enclosed toilet after a quarrel, as Pistorius strapped on his prosthetic legs, grabbed his pistol, strode seven yards to the door and fired four times through it, killing her.

PHOTOS: 'Blade Runner' Oscar Pistorius faces murder charge

She had nowhere to hide as four bullets pounded through the door, three of them hitting her.

If convicted of premeditated murder, Pistorius, 26, who inspired the world by overcoming adversity to compete in the Olympics, faces life in prison.

But the way Pistorius told it, he adored Steenkamp and was shattered by her death.

"We were deeply in love and I could not be happier," he said in a court affidavit. "I am absolutely mortified by the events and the devastating loss of my beloved Reeva."

According to his statement, it was pitch-dark when he heard noises in the bathroom that night, and assuming it was an intruder, he grabbed his gun and hurried to protect himself and Steenkamp, without stopping to put on his prosthetic legs.

South Africa has one of the highest rates of violent crime globally and break-ins often result in homeowners being tortured, raped or killed by intruders. But one of the biggest categories of violent crime in South Africa is the killing of women, with the majority carried out by people they know.

One of the few points of agreement between the prosecution and the defense Tuesday was that Pistorius fired four shots through the door and that those shots killed Steenkamp, 29.

One of the major differences between the two sides is the prosecution's contention that Pistorius paused to put on his prosthetic legs and grab his gun — important elements of the argument that it was a planned murder — and the defense position that he didn't stop to put on his legs. The runner said that being without them as he moved on his stumps to confront a perceived threat heightened his sense of terror and vulnerability.

"I deny the [murder] allegation in the strongest terms," Pistorius said in his affidavit, read to the court by his lawyer, Barry Roux. "I fail to understand how I could be charged with murder let alone premeditated murder as I had no intention to kill my girlfriend."

According to Pistorius, the couple had planned to spend the evening of Feb. 13 apart with friends, but instead opted to stay in for a quiet dinner. About 10 p.m. they went to the bedroom, where he watched TV with his prosthetic legs off while she did yoga before they turned in.

During the night, Pistorius said in his affidavit, he woke and went out on a balcony without his prosthetic legs to get a fan. He then heard noises in the bathroom.

"I felt a sense of terror rushing over me.... I believed that someone had entered my house. I was too scared to switch a light on. I grabbed my 9mm pistol from underneath my bed.... It was pitch dark in the bedroom and I thought Reeva was in bed."

Pistorius said he had received death threats and had been a victim of violence and robberies.

"As I did not have my prosthetic legs on and felt extremely vulnerable, I knew I had to protect Reeva and myself," the affidavit said. He said he screamed out at the intruder to get out of the house and opened fire through the toilet door, yelling at Steenkamp to phone the police. She did not respond.

"When I reached the bed, I realized that Reeva was not in bed. That is when it dawned on me that it could have been Reeva who was in the toilet." According to Pistorius, he put on his prosthetic legs, broke down the door with a cricket bat, carried her downstairs and tried to revive her. "But she died in my arms," he said.

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel dismissed Pistorius' description of what happened that night. "There is no possible information to support his version that it was a burglar," Nel said. But even if he had made that mistake, Nel contended, it still would have been a premeditated murder because he shot through the door into a tiny room containing just the toilet and measuring no more than 16 square feet.

Under South African law, a person needs to be facing a real and immediate threat to his or her life before firing on an intruder.

Nel contended that Steenkamp fled to the toilet after a quarrel and locked herself in. No one would fire into a room of that size hoping to merely scare off a burglar, he said.

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