Oscar Pistorius wailed on the stand today as he described his panic upon realizing his gunshots had killed girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.
"She wasn't breathing," the track star heaved as he described the February night more than a year ago. The judge adjourned the murder trial as Pistorius' emotions unraveled and later ended proceedings for the day.
The Olympic sprinter had been explaining how he came to shoot Steenkamp, and how it didn't dawn on him at first that she, and not an intruder, may have been behind the bathroom door at which he fired his pistol.
"I didn't want to believe that it could be Reeva inside the toilet," he testified.
An emotional Oscar Pistorius apologized Monday to the family of Reeva Steenkamp, the girlfriend he killed on Valentine's Day last year, saying he woke up thinking of them and praying for them every day.
"I would like to take this opportunity to apologize - to Mr. and Mrs. Steenkamp, to Reeva's family - to those who are here today who knew her," Pistorius said as he took the stand at his murder trial.
"I can't imagine the pain and the sorrow and the emptiness that I have caused you and your family. ... I can promise you that when she went to bed that night, she felt loved," he said, his voice breaking as if he was fighting back tears.
It was the first time he has spoken in public about Steenkamp's death, which he says was an accident. He pleaded not guilty to murder when the high-profile trial opened last month.
Steenkamp's mother, June, sat stony-faced in court as South Africa's onetime Olympic golden boy choked out his statement.
Judge Thokozile Masipa also betrayed no emotion as Pistorius spoke but did once ask him to talk louder, saying she could hardly hear him.
Monday was the first day of the defense phase of the trial, following three weeks of prosecution in March.
Pistorius, who says he mistook Steenkamp for an intruder in his house in the dark, testified that he has been suffering nightmares since the killing and wakes up smelling blood.
He told the Pretoria court that he is afraid to sleep, and "if I hear noise, I wake up just in a complete state of terror." He said he is on medication, including an antidepressant and sleeping aids.
Earlier, the first defense witness, pathologist Jan Botha, talked about the wounds Steenkamp suffered when Pistorius shot her and about when she last ate.
The South African amputee sprinter put his head in his hands as Botha said that the shot that hit Steenkamp's arm was "akin to a traumatic amputation" and that she died "fairly quickly after sustaining the head wound."
Pistorius, 27, is accused of intentionally murdering Steenkamp, 29.
The defense team will call 14 to 17 witnesses, Barry Roux, Pistorius' lead lawyer, said as he opened his case.
Botha went first because of "family health reasons," Roux said, breaking with the South African legal custom of the defendant testifying first. He said Botha was the only defense witness who will go "out of order."
The prosecution rested its case on March 25 after 15 days and 21 witnesses.
Talking about his childhood, Pistorius said his mother kept a firearm in a padded bag under her pillow. His father was often not around, and Pistorius said his mother would sometimes wake her children up, thinking they were being burgled.
He said she was very supportive of him and "never made me feel any different from the rest of the kids."
"Everything I learned in life, I learned from her," he said.
He spoke about her death when he was 15 and attending boarding school. He did not know she was sick until he got a call asking him to come visit her at a hospital, he said.
Later, he got a call from doctors telling him to come immediately and arrived when she was on her deathbed. She died 10 minutes after he arrived, Pistorius testified.
She had encouraged him to be a normal child and participate in sports despite his disability, he said.
Roux took him through his athletic triumphs, including his success as a Paralympic sprinter, but also highlighted times he felt vulnerable or afraid.
He was badly injured in a boating accident in 2009, he said, which left him "a lot more vigilant about losing my life ... more fearful."
And he said he cannot stand still without his prosthetics on.
"I don't have balance on my stumps," he said. "I can't stand still on my stumps."
That could be a key to his defense. He says he fired his gun because he would have been unable to defend himself or run away when he heard what he thought was a burglar.
Shortly after a lunch break, Masipa granted an early adjournment for the day after Pistorius testified that he did not sleep the previous night. Roux made the request after establishing, through Pistorius' testimony, that the track star was tired.
The trial is due to resume Tuesday morning.
Trial to last until mid-May
Pistorius admits that he killed Steenkamp, firing four shots through a closed door in his house in the early hours of February 14, 2013. Three hit her, with the last one probably killing her almost instantly, according to the pathologist who performed the autopsy.
But Pistorius says he thought she was a nighttime intruder in his pitch-black house and believed he was firing in self-defense.
The trial, which began on March 3, is scheduled to continue until the middle of May.
Pistorius first achieved global fame as an outstanding double-amputee sprinter who ran with special prostheses that earned him the nickname "Blade Runner."
Masipa will decide the verdict in collaboration with two experts called assessors. South Africa does not have jury trials.
In South Africa, premeditated murder carries a mandatory life sentence with a minimum of 25 years in prison. Pistorius also could get five years for each of two unrelated gun indictments and 15 years for a firearms charge he also faces.
If he isn't convicted of premeditated murder, the sprinter could face a lesser charge of culpable homicide, a crime based on negligence.
The sentence for culpable homicide is at the judge's discretion.
But was it murder?
One of South Africa's toughest prosecutors, Gerrie Nel, has been fighting for most of this month to prove it was.
Starting Friday, one of the country's shrewdest defense lawyers, Barry Roux, will try to convince a judge that it wasn't.
The verdict will hinge on two questions:
Did the Olympic sprinter know his girlfriend was behind the door in the bathroom of his house when he fired four hollow-point bullets through it in the middle of the night?
And if he did not - if he thought she was a burglar, as he insists - did he act as a reasonable person would have?
Critical testimony will come from the only living person who was in the house at the time, the "Blade Runner" himself.
Pistorius is likely to take the stand for the first time Friday to tell the story he has been telling for more than a year now.
He woke up in the middle of the night, went to his balcony to bring in a fan - or two fans, in his most recent version - heard his bathroom window opening, took his gun, went to the bathroom and fired through the door when he heard a noise in the toilet.
"It was pitch dark in the bedroom, and I thought Reeva was in bed," he testified when he applied for bail in the days after the killing.
In that version of the story, Pistorius emphasized that he "felt a sense of terror" when he heard the noise, that he "felt extremely vulnerable" because he was not wearing his prosthetic legs, and that he "has been a victim of violence and of burglaries before."
And, he said, "We were deeply in love and I could not be happier."
If Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa believes that story, Pistorius could be acquitted of murder. She could find him guilty of the lesser charge of culpable homicide - similar to what would be called manslaughter in the United States - or find him not guilty at all.
The defense is likely to rely on three types of experts to support Pistorius' story:
Pistorius fired four shots. Three hit Steenkamp: one in the hip, one in the arm and one in the head. The shot to the head probably killed her almost instantly.
But when did that shot hit her? The prosecution says it hit her last. That means she would have been able to scream between shots - potentially giving Pistorius a moment to realize his mistake and stop shooting.
Defense lawyer Barry Roux rejected the prosecution's order of shots, though, in a heated exchange with police Capt. Christian Mangena, the prosecution ballistics expert.
Roux said the defense ballistics expert would show that the order of shots was different, and that Pistorius fired the four shots in two quick bursts - two "double taps."
Mangena said it was "impossible" for the pattern of wounds on the body to be the result of two double taps, ultimately leaving Roux sighing dismissively and promising that his own ballistics expert would explain.
Messages between Pistorius and girlfriend read in court
Oscar Pistorius threw up repeatedly as Gert Saayman, who performed the autopsy on Steenkamp, described the devastating wounds Pistorius inflicted on her.
But as gruesome as the testimony was, it is not critical to the state's case - there's no doubt, after all, who killed Steenkamp or how.
The most damning thing Saayman said was far less dramatic. Based on the contents of her stomach, the pathologist suggested that Steenkamp had probably eaten around 1 a.m., about two hours before she died.
That's a direct contradiction of Pistorius' story that they were in the bedroom by about 10 p.m., her doing yoga and him watching television, and that they went to sleep after she finished her yoga.
Roux hammered Saayman on the question of when Steenkamp last ate, going so far as to bring in academic articles for the pathologist to read, a clear sign that the defense considers it crucial to rebut that point.
Saayman did not budge.
A pathologist who attended the autopsy on behalf of Pistorius, Reggie Perumal, is due to testify for the defense
A police cell phone expert also may have found a similar inconsistency with Pistorius' timeline. Capt. Francois Moller, who downloaded the contents of Pistorius' iPhone, said it made an Internet connection for about five minutes an hour and 20 minutes before the shooting. The defense may put forward an expert of their own to explain.
Pistorius needs the judge to believe not only that there is a chance he made a genuine mistake in thinking Steenkamp was a burglar, but that his response was reasonable.
Sean Rens, a gun dealer who was selling a small arsenal to Pistorius at the time of the killing, testified that the athlete had passed a test showing he knew what the law said about firing in self-defense.
On the face of it, what Pistorius did in firing through a closed door, when he could not see an imminent threat, was neither legal nor safe, the Rens testimony suggested.
But a psychiatrist may argue that Pistorius should be judged by a different standard of reasonableness because he is a double amputee who was not wearing his prosthetics at the time.
His statement at his bail hearing implied that he should: "As I did not have my prosthetic legs on and felt extremely vulnerable, I knew I had to protect Reeva and myself. ... I felt trapped as my bedroom door was locked and I have limited mobility on my stumps."
If the judge accepts that as true, Oscar Pistorius' disability could prove to be his greatest defense.
But former Col. G.S. van Rensburg may have handed the defense more opportunities to discredit police handling of evidence against Pistorius.
The ballistics expert handling the runner's gun did so without gloves, van Rensburg told the court. And when van Rensburg confronted him, the expert apologized and fetched gloves.
An expensive watch belonging to Pistorius also disappeared during the initial police search of his house, van Rensburg testified.
But probably the key testimony was on Pistorius' bathroom door, which van Rensburg called the most valuable piece of evidence in the case.
The former commander described removing the door, checking that it could be reattached, putting it in a body bag and taking it to his office.
This is critical testimony because the defense argues that the door, as evidence, is contaminated.
If previously given expert testimony based on markings on the door prevails, it could make Pistorius look as though he lied about a detail in his account of events.
Van Rensburg resigned from the police force amid accusations that he mishandled evidence by keeping the door in his office.
In his cross-examination, defense attorney Barry Roux went straight after van Rensburg's credibility, asking him if he understood the importance of telling the truth.
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