March 3rd, 2014
08:22 AM ET

Chilling Testimony at Pistorius Trial

The murder trial of Oscar Pistorius opened Monday with chilling testimony from the South African amputee track star's neighbor, who described "bloodcurdling screams" coming from next door, followed by gunshots, the night of Reeva Steenkamp's death last year.

"Something terrible was happening at that house," Michelle Burger testified.

She told the court that she heard a woman's screams and a man screaming for help.

"Just after 3, I woke up from a woman's terrible screams," she said. "Then I also heard a man screaming for help. Three times he yelled for help."

Burger said her husband called authorities. She later told her husband that she feared the woman had witnessed her husband being shot "because after he screamed, we didn't hear him."

Language issues caused problems after the lunch break, as defense attorney Barry Roux pressed Burger on her account during cross-examination.

She frequently had to help her Afrikaans interpreter translate her words into English, and eventually dropped speaking in her native tongue altogether.

Roux questioned Burger's timeline of events and what she heard, asking if the "bang" sounds she heard might not have been gunshots, but rather a cricket bat bashing at the bathroom door.

She answered that she had clearly heard gunshots, testily answering Roux's questions about timing, saying she "didn't sit there with a stopwatch and take down the timing of each shot."

A short time before her testimony, Pistorius pleaded not guilty to murdering Steenkamp, his girlfriend, inside his house a year ago. He also pleaded not guilty to several weapons-related charges.

It's expected to take about three weeks for a judge to hear both sides and decide whether Pistorius mistook Steenkamp for a burglar, as he says, or killed her in cold blood.

LIVE UPDATES: Pistorius on trial for murder

Parts of Pistorius' trial are being televised live - a first in South Africa - after a judge's decision last week allowing cameras in the courtroom. But any testimony by Pistorius, or witnesses who do not consent, will not be televised.

June Steenkamp is inside the courtroom, marking the first time she has faced her daughter's killer in court. Reeva's parents have avoided previous court appearances because, they said, they wanted privacy. Pistorius' brother and sister were also present for Monday's proceedings, which were delayed by an hour and a half because of pretrial "hiccups," Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa said.

With the aid of two assessors who will help her evaluate the facts of the case, Masipa - only the second black woman appointed to the bench since the end of apartheid - will determine Pistorius' fate. South Africa abolished jury trials in 1969.

A few minutes before the trial's scheduled start at 10 a.m. (3 a.m. ET), Pistorius arrived at the Pretoria High Court through a back door, avoiding a massive media circus assembled in front.

Pistorius faces one charge of premeditated murder and a firearms charge associated with Steenkamp's killing, as well as two separate gun indictments from previous incidents. In South Africa, premeditated murder carries a mandatory life sentence, with a minimum of 25 years. He also could get five years for each gun indictment and 15 years for the firearms charge.

If he isn't convicted of premeditated murder, the sprinter would face a lesser charge of "culpable homicide," a crime based on negligence, and could be looking at up to 15 years on that charge, experts say.

Pistorius, 27, and Steenkamp, 29, were a young, attractive and high-profile couple who were popular in South Africa's social circles. The "Blade Runner" won six Paralympic gold medals and became the first double amputee runner to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Cover girl Steenkamp, who was soon to star in a TV reality show, was on the cusp of becoming a celebrity in her own right.

Everything changed before dawn on Valentine's Day 2013, as Steenkamp lay lifeless in a pool of blood on the floor of her boyfriend's house in an upscale gated community in Pretoria. Moments before, Pistorius says, he had pointed his 9 mm pistol toward an upstairs toilet room and fired four bullets through the locked door.

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