Pistorius trial: Athlete cries as he hears extent of girlfriend's brain damage

By Tom Peck

Oscar Pistorius blocks his ears inside the High Court on the second day of his trial in Pretoria. Photo / AP
Oscar Pistorius blocks his ears inside the High Court on the second day of his trial in Pretoria. Photo / AP

Oscar Pistorius broke down in tears after his defence team argued that the gunshots which killed girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp left her brain so "damaged" she couldn't have screamed.

The athlete's defence counsel Barry Roux landed significant blows against the testimony of Michelle Burger, a neighbour who claimed she heard Ms Steenkamp's "blood curling screams" followed by the sound gunfire in the early hours of Valentine's Day morning last year.

Read more of the Herald's Pistorius trial coverage:
'Something terrible was happening'
Pistorius case may hinge on door

Pistorius pleads not guilty

Mr Roux challenged her testimony signalling that "the amount of brain damage" inflicted on Ms Steenkamp would have reduced her cognitive functions to none as Mr Pistorius wept in the dock and covered his ears with his hands.

"What we know is that Reeva was locked inside the bathroom. We know, there is no dispute, that when the shots were fired, Reeva was in the toilet and the door was locked.

"You tell us from 177 metres you could hear that screaming," Mr Roux continued. "It was so distinct, what you could hear, that you could hear increased emotion, increased intensity?"

Oscar Pistorius broke down in tears at some of today's testimony. Photo / AFP
Oscar Pistorius broke down in tears at some of today's testimony. Photo / AFP

"That person, who had sustained that amount of brain damage [when the fourth bullet struck her in the head], would have no response, no cognitive function. There can have been no response, and yet you claim to have heard her screaming?" Mr Roux asked.

Dr Burger countered that the sound of the screaming could have carried from before the shot was fired and insisted she stands by her testimony- that she was woken by the sound of a woman screaming, followed by the sound of a man screaming for help, and then four gunshots, during which the woman's screaming continued, and faded away afterwards.

Yesterday, the athlete's defence team claimed that Mr Pistorius screams "like a woman" when he is anxious. Dr Burger insists she heard a woman screaming.

Mr Roux also sought to cast doubt over Burger's reliability as a witness, claiming her and her husband's statements given to police are so similar "one must have served as a template for the other."

Dr Burger countered that the statements were given in the form of answers to questions to police, and are merely "police writing style."

"If he [the police captain] is asking me about the sequence of events, if he asked me what time I went to bed, I told him, between nine and ten. My husband would have answered the same."

Mr Roux's assertion is that the sound of gunshot was in fact the sound of Mr Pistorius striking the locked bathroom door with a cricket bat.

"I really don't see that a bat and a gun shot sound the same," Dr Burger said. "A gun shot is extremely loud."

"Do you know what it sounds like when you hit a bat against a door?" Mr Roux continued.

"No I've never hit a bat against a door. But I know what a gun shot sounds like. If I hit a bat against a door in this court, and then pulled a trigger, I know which would be louder."

When asked for why Mr Pistorius would have shouted for help before the shots were fired, Dr Burger replied: "The only thing I can wonder is that it was a mockery, but I do not know. Mr Pistorius is the person who must answer that."

"You will even go so far as to call him a mockery, with no facts?" Mr Roux countered, pointing at Oscar Pistorius in the dock. "Just to not make a single concession that can help that man?"

A second witness, Estelle van der Merwe, a neighbour, told Pretoria's High Court she heard people arguing just before 2am the night Ms Steenkamp was killed, followed by the sound of what she described as four "shots or explosions". "It seemed like somebody was involved in a fight," she said. "People were talking in loud voices."

Earlier, as Dr Burger was being cross-examined, the state prosecutor Gerrie Nel dramatically intervened to say the witness's face was being shown on television, and the court was adjourned.

Several South African broadcasters fought a lengthy legal battle to broadcast the trial, and not showing the face of witnesses who wished to remain anonymous was a crucial part of the agreement.

In fact, a 24 hour news channel eNCA News had shown a still photograph of Dr Burger, taken from her university's website, as many newspapers had done, which State Prosecutor Nel said was a "direct violation" of the television agreement.

Judge Masipa, who was far more vocal today than yesterday, warned: "The media must behave. You will not be treated with soft gloves by this court." She ordered an investigation to follow.

eNCA apologised for broadcasting the image, saying it was "sourced" from the website of the University of Pretoria, where Burger works as a lecturer.

It said it was a "bad judgment call'' to use the photo and apologised to the court, the parties and to Burger for an "unfortunate incident.''

Reeva Steenkamp's mother, who attended yesterday with the expressed hope of 'really looking Oscar in the eye' did not attend court today.

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