The first witness in the premeditated murder trial of Paralympian gold medalist Oscar Pistorius heard “blood-curdling screams” from a woman in the early hours of the morning his girlfriend was shot.
Double-amputee Pistorius, 27, pleaded not guilty today in the Pretoria High Court to purposefully shooting model Reeva Steenkamp at his home on Valentine’s day last year. Dressed in a black suit and tie, Pistorius stood as his lawyer, Barry Roux, spelled out a case of accidental death. The first day of the scheduled three-week trial adjourned at about 3:45 p.m. local time after starting 90 minutes late.
“Just after 3, I woke up from a woman’s terrible screams,” Michelle Burger, a neighbor of Pistorius in Pretoria, told the court as the state’s first witness. “She screamed terribly and she yelled for help.” Burger said she heard a shot and then three more shots after a pause.
Known as the Blade Runner because of his J-shaped prosthetic running blades, Pistorius has admitted to shooting Steenkamp three times while she was in his bathroom, believing she was an intruder. He also denied guilt for three separate firearms charges. The presiding judge, Thokozile Matilda Masipa, will rule on the case as South Africa doesn’t have a jury system.
Members of both families sat in the first of six rows of benches in the wood-paneled court for a trial broadcast live on radio and parts of the proceedings on television. Pistorius, who has been free on 1 million rand ($93,000) bail since February 2013, wrote notes to his legal team from the accused bench.
Reeva’s mother, June Steenkamp, left the court surrounded by family members shortly before a throng of cameramen and onlookers mobbed Pistorius’s car after he left the building.
“There was no argument,” Roux said in court, reading a statement from Pistorius. “I deny this allegation in the strongest terms because there was no argument.”
Roux questioned differences in testimony from Burger, one of more than 100 witnesses the prosecution may call, and her initial statement to police.
The start of the trial was delayed to ensure an Afrikaans interpreter was available, according to Emily Dlamini, a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice.
Burger complained about the quality of the interpretation of her words from Afrikaans to English.
“She is interpreting what I am saying, some of the words are not exactly the same,” Burger, who also speaks English, said in court. “And then I’m correcting her in English.”
Apart from the murder charge, Pistorius faces two counts of illegally firing a gun in public and one of illegally possessing ammunition.
The trial of the man once on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people is set to be South Africa’s equivalent of the case of ex-National Football League star O.J. Simpson. One television company is dedicating a 24-hour channel to the story and as many as 80 international media companies have reporters in court.
Multichoice, a unit of Naspers Ltd., and Primedia Broadcasting Ltd. were granted permission to provide the coverage, High Court Judge Dunstan Mlambo said. Multichoice must provide a free feed to other television channels under the ruling.
The charges have derailed the running career of the winner of six Paralympic gold medals and cost Pistorius sponsorship deals with Nike Inc. and Luxottica Group SpA’s Oakley. He was the first double amputee to compete at the Olympics Games in London in 2012.