Oscar Pistorius, the South African gold-medal winning Paralympian, denied he planned the murder of his girlfriend, saying he shot her through a locked bathroom door thinking she was a burglar.
Magistrate Desmond Nair stopped proceedings in a Pretoria court as Pistorius sobbed inconsolably when his lawyer read a statement of his account of the incident. Prosecutors accuse Pistorius of premeditated murder, arguing he put on his prosthetic legs, walked 20 feet and shot Reeva Steenkamp, 29, three times at his home on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day.
“I felt extremely vulnerable as I felt I had to protect Reeva and myself,” Pistorius said in the statement, denying that he was wearing his prosthetics when he shot at the door.
Pistorius, dubbed the “Blade Runner” because of his double leg amputation and prosthetic running blades, put his track and field career indefinitely on hold, canceling scheduled appearances in Australia, Brazil, the U.S. and the U.K. during the next 14 weeks, his manager Peet Van Zyl said on Feb. 17. This is to allow Pistorius to focus on the court case, he said.
“It was pre-planned up to the time that he shot her,” prosecutor Gerrie Nel, who in 2010 won the corruption conviction of former police chief Jackie Selebi, said in a packed courtroom in the capital. “The motive is he went to kill and that’s clear. He walked to the bathroom and he shot. That’s it.”
Pistorius, wearing a dark suit, sank his face in his hands repeatedly as his brother, Carl, tried to comfort him. His father, Henke, sat alone wiping away tears as other family members stood in a circle embracing after Nair confirmed the charge of premeditated murder.
Pistorius faces a maximum term of life in prison if found guilty of that charge, which can be reduced to murder at a later stage, Nair said. The defense will have to prove “exceptional circumstances” to get bail under a premeditated murder charge, he said. The hearing will resume tomorrow.
In the statement, Pistorius said he heard a noise in the bathroom and went to fetch his gun, shouting at the person to come out before shooting. He broke through the door with a cricket bat after realizing it may have been Steenkamp, and then carried her body downstairs to seek help. Pistorius said he thought a burglar had climbed through an open window.
“I am absolutely devastated at the loss of my beloved,” he said. “She died in my arms.”
Pistorius, who was born without fibulas and had both legs amputated below the knee at 11 months old, has won six Paralympic gold medals. He became the first amputee runner to compete at an Olympic Games in London last year and was included on Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most-influential people.
He competed in his first able-bodied elite event at the 2011 world championships in Daegu, South Korea. He got his chance after sport’s highest tribunal, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, in 2008 overturned a ban prohibiting him from competing against able-bodied athletes, imposed by the International Association of Athletics Federations, which said his blades give him an advantage.
A funeral service was held in the south coast city of Port Elizabeth today for Steenkamp’s family and friends.
“We had planned to get together in December,” Mike Steenkamp, Reeva’s uncle, told reporters outside the church in footage broadcast on eNews Channel Africa. “We are here today as a family. And the only thing that is missing is Reeva,” he said, breaking down, while being consoled by Steenkamp’s brother, Adam.
Steenkamp got a degree in law from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and was a model and television presenter, according to her publicist Sarit Tomlinson. She was voted as one of the top 100 most attractive women last year in the South African edition of FHM magazine.
South Africa recorded 30.9 murders per 100,000 people in the 12-month period through March 2012, down from 31.9 per 100,000, the South African Police Service said on Sept. 20. The murder rate has fallen since reaching 67.9 per 100,000 in 1995, when the police force was integrated after the end of all-white, apartheid rule. South Africa’s murder rate is more than six times that of the U.S.
Van Zyl said two days ago that Pistorius’s sponsors and partners, which include Nike Inc. and U.K. telecommunications provider BT Group Plc, would honor their contractual commitments with him and let the legal process take its course.
Nike, the world’s largest sporting-goods company, and eyewear maker Oakley Inc. have since distanced themselves from the runner.
Luxottica Group SpA’s Oakley, which has been associated with Pistorius since 2009 according to his website, suspended its contract with him “effective immediately,” the company said in an e-mailed statement.
“Our hearts are with the families during this difficult time and we’ll continue to follow the developments in this tragic case,” Oakley said.
Nike don’t have any plans for new campaigns with Pistorius, Seruscka Naidoo, a South African spokeswoman for the company, said by phone from Johannesburg.
Multichoice, a South African satellite TV company owned by Naspers Ltd., last week pulled an advertising campaign and removed billboards featuring Pistorius “out of respect and sympathy to the bereaved,” spokeswoman Lani Lombard said in an e-mailed response to questions.