Defense tries to shake witnesses in Pistorius trial
March 05, 2014 10:15 AM

Defense tries to shake witness in Pistorius trial

PRETORIA, South Africa — The chief defense lawyer in Oscar Pistorius’ murder trial sought on today to undermine the prosecution testimony of a couple who say they heard a woman’s screams and gunfire the night the athlete fatally shot his girlfriend.

Lawyer Barry Roux said telephone records will show that the banging sounds the neighbors heard were instead a distressed Pistorius hitting a toilet door with a cricket bat to get to fatally wounded girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

Charl Johnson and his wife Michelle Burger have testified to hearing a sequence of events in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine’s Day last year that involved a woman screaming, a man shouting for help and then the sound of gunshots. Cross-examining Johnson on the third day of the blockbuster trial, Roux says call records will show Pistorius called an estate manager at around 3:19 a.m. and soon after he bashed in the door with the bat.

In Johnson and Burger’s testimony, they say they heard what they described as shots straight after making a call to security at 3:16 a.m. The similar times show the sounds were the bat on the door, Roux argued.

“There is only one thing you could have heard, because it coincides precisely,” Roux said to Johnson. “That was the time that he (Pistorius) broke down the door (with the bat).”

Johnson replied, addressing the judge: “My lady, I am convinced the sound I heard was gunshots.”

“I understand,” Roux said in the exchange, suggesting Johnson had convinced himself they were shots.

Throwing doubt on the witnesses’ recollection of the sequence is crucial for Pistorius’ defense after the state maintained there was a loud argument on the night he shot Steenkamp through a door in his bathroom and screams and shouts before a gun was fired.

Pistorius’ team wants to show the screams were Pistorius calling for help after the accidental shots.

After a break, prosecutor Gerrie Nel asked for permission to stand down Johnson until Thursday to get more records. The judge agreed and the case moved on to its fourth witness.

Pistorius, 27, has said he shot Steenkamp, 29, by accident, fearing she was a dangerous intruder in his home. The case has transfixed people around the world, and the proceedings are being broadcast on television, adding to the scrutiny of South Africa’s criminal justice system as well as the character of a globally admired athlete whose career peaked when he ran in the 2012 Olympics.

Pistorius was born without fibula bones because of a congenital defect and his legs were amputated when he was 11 months old. He has run on carbon-fiber blades and was initially banned from competing against able-bodied peers because many argued that his blades gave him an unfair advantage. He was later cleared to compete. He is a multiple Paralympic medalist but he failed to win a medal at the London Olympics.

Lawyer Roux earlier attacked the testimonies of Johnson and Burger by also saying similarities in their accounts indicated that they had aligned their versions at the expense of truth.

In his testimony Johnson told the court in Pretoria, the South African capital, that he heard the cries of a terrified woman and shooting around the time that Pistorius killed Steenkamp.

Johnson’s wife, Burger, had given similar testimony and at one point broke down in tears because of what she said was the memory of the terrified screams of a woman.

Roux said there were differences between the statements that Johnson and Burger had given to police after the shooting, and testimony that they gave in court. Both the statements and the testimony shared similarities, Roux said, implying that the couple had contaminated their evidence by talking through what they were going to say.

“You could just as well have stood together in the witness box,” Roux said. “What do you say to that?”

The tart assertion drew a caution from Judge Thokozile Masipa, who told Roux he had gone too far.

Roux contended that crucial elements in the testimony of the couple were missing in their earlier comments to police, including the statements that they heard a woman’s screams rising in anxiety and intensity and that they heard the woman’s voice “fading” after the last in a volley of gunshots.

Johnson suggested that he and his wife were more expressive while testifying in court than when providing information for a police document.

“I would venture a guess that it’s the way you verbally tell the story,” he said. “There’s a lot more emotion involved ... whereas the statement is more factual.”

At the beginning of proceedings today, prosecutor Nel said Johnson’s telephone number had been read out in court a day earlier. Johnson then said he had since received a “large amount” of missed calls.

He described one voicemail message as saying: “Why are you lying in court? You know Oscar didn’t kill Reeva. It’s not cool.”

Boxer Kevin Lerena testified today that Pistorius apologized after a gun was accidentally fired in a Johannesburg restaurant table and asked another person to take the blame.

Lerena said in court that another friend passed a gun under the table to Pistorius and told him there was a bullet in the chamber in the January 2013 incident. Lerena says a shot went off, narrowly missing his foot, and that Pistorius urged the gun owner to take responsibility for the shooting.

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