Oscar Pistorius trial: Witness heard 'blood curdling screams', then gunshots

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Originally published on March 4, 2014

The first witness at South African star athlete Oscar Pistorius' murder trial told the court on Monday that she was awoken by "blood curdling screams" from a woman followed by gunshots early on February 14, 2013.

Pistorius' neighbor, Michelle Burger, took the stand after the Olympic and Paralympic star pleaded not guilty to murdering his girlfriend, model and reality TV star Reeva Steenkamp. Pistorius, now 27, shot and killed Steenkamp, 29, at his home on Valentine's Day.

Pistorius says he shot Steenkamp after mistaking her for a home intruder hiding in the toilet. The prosecution says Pistorius deliberately shot his girlfriend after the two had an argument.

Burger's testimony was not televised per her request, although an audio recording was broadcast. She moved into the Silver Stream Estate in Pretoria, next to Pistorius' Silver Woods Estate, in 2011. Her balcony was 177 metres from Pistorius' bathroom window.

Speaking in Afrikaans through an interpreter, Burger told the Pretoria High Court that she was awoken by the sound of a woman screaming.

"She screamed terribly and she yelled for help. Then I also heard a man screaming for help. Three times he yelled for help," she said.

Burger and her husband assumed that a violent break-in was taking place, and her husband called a private security firm to report the incident. They then heard more screaming.

"I heard the screams again. It was worse. It was more intense," Burger told the court, her voice cracking with emotion, according to a Reuters report. "She was very scared."

"Just after her screams, I heard four shots. Four gun-shots," she said. "Bang ... bang, bang, bang." Burger said the first shot was fired, then there was a brief interval, then the next three shots were fired.

During cross-examination, Pistorius' defence counsel suggested that Burger may have confused the sound of a cricket bat banging on a door with gunshots, as Pistorius reportedly banged a cricket bat against the locked toilet door to open it after shooting Steenkamp. Pistorius' defence counsel also asked why Burger said she heard gunshots but could not hear the sound of the cricket bat.

"I know what a gunshot sounds like," said Burger.

Pistorius was born without fibulae in both legs, which were amputated halfway between his knees and ankles when he was 11 months old. In 2003 he shattered his knee while playing rugby on prosthetic limbs and took up running while undergoing rehabilitation.

He reached the 2012 Olympic 400-metre semi-final running on carbon-fiber "blades", for which he was given the nickname "Bladerunner".

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