Pistorius Disputes Murder Charge in Court

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PRETORIA, South Africa -- Facing a charge of premeditated murder in the death of his girlfriend, Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee track star and one of the world's best-known athletes, denied on Tuesday that he had intended to take her life when he opened fire at a closed bathroom door at his home last week, saying he did not know that she was on the other side.

"I fail to understand how I could be charged with murder, let alone premeditated," he said in an affidavit read to the packed courtroom by his defense lawyer, Barry Roux, "I had no intention to kill my girlfriend."

His assertion contradicted an earlier accusation from the prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, that Mr. Pistorius committed premeditated murder when he rose from his bed, pulled on artificial legs, walked more than 20 feet from his bedroom and pumped four bullets into the door, three of which struck his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on the other side.

It was the first time that either the prosecution or Mr. Pistorius had publicly provided details of their radically divergent accounts of a killing that has shocked the nation and made news around the world.

The case broke open last Thursday when the police arrived at Mr. Pistorius's house in a gated community here in Pretoria to find Ms. Steenkamp dead from gunshot wounds.

Developments since then have been all the more dramatic, since Mr. Pistorius had been an emblem of triumph over adversity, his sporting achievement on a world stage blending with the glamour of celebrity at home. Mr. Pistorius, 26, and Ms. Steenkamp, 29, a model and law school graduate, had been depicted as a golden couple.

"We were deeply in love and I could not be happier," said Mr. Pistorius's affidavit, read at a bail hearing. "I know she felt the same way." As it was read out loud, the athlete wept so uncontrollably that the magistrate, Desmond Nair, ordered a brief recess to permit him to regain his composure.

Magistrate Nair adjourned the case until Wednesday without ruling on whether the athlete would be granted bail.

Mr. Pistorius said he and Ms. Steenkamp had gone to bed early on Wednesday night, but in the middle of the night he heard a noise from the bathroom and went to investigate on his stumps, not his artificial legs.

"I am acutely aware of violent crime being committed by intruders entering homes," he said in the affidavit. "I have received death threats before. I have also been a victim of violence and of burglaries before. For that reason I kept my firearm, a 9 mm Parabellum, underneath my bed when I went to bed at night."

He was nervous, he said, because the bathroom window did not have burglar bars and contractors who had been working there had left ladders behind.

The room was dark, he said, and he did not realize that Ms. Steenkamp was not in bed. He felt vulnerable and fearful without his prosthetics and opened fire at the door, he said, calling to Ms. Steenkamp to telephone the police.

Only then did he realize that she was not in bed, he said. He put on his artificial legs and tried to kick down the door before breaking it open with a cricket bat to discover Ms. Steenkamp.

He carried her downstairs, he said, and "she died in my arms."

Earlier, Magistrate Nair said he could not exclude premeditation in the killing, so Mr. Pistorius's bail application will be much more difficult. But he said he would consider downgrading the charges depending on evidence at subsequent hearings.

Mr. Nel said Ms. Steenkamp, who had just made her debut in a reality television show, had been in a tiny room measuring less than 20 square feet when the shots rang out. "She could not go anywhere," he said. "It must have been horrific."

"She locked the door for a purpose. We will get to that purpose," he said.

But Mr. Roux, a lawyer representing Mr. Pistorius, said the defense would "submit that this is not a murder." He said there was no evidence that Mr. Pistorius and Ms. Steenkamp had fought and no evidence of a motive. He also challenged the prosecution to produce a witness to corroborate its version of Mr. Pistorius's actions.

"Scratch the veneer" of the prosecution case, he said, and there is no evidence to support it.

"All we really know is she locked herself behind the toilet door and she was shot," Mr. Roux said.

Mr. Nel, the prosecutor, however, declared: "If I arm myself, walk a distance and murder a person, that is premeditated. The door is closed. There is no doubt. I walk seven meters and I kill."

He added: "The motive is, 'I want to kill.' That's it."

If convicted of premeditated murder, Mr. Pistorius would face a mandatory life sentence, though under South African law he would be eligible for parole in 25 years at the latest. South Africa abolished the death penalty in 1995.

Mr. Pistorius was appearing in court for the second time since Friday. He arrived looking grim-faced, his jaw set. But, as during his earlier appearance, he broke down in tears when the prosecutor said that he had "killed an innocent woman."

As the court went into a midday recess, Ms. Steenkamp's private funeral service began in the southern coastal city of Port Elizabeth, her hometown, with six pallbearers carrying a coffin swathed in a white cloth and white flowers as mourners expressed dismay and rage. More than 100 relatives and friends attended the funeral at the Victoria Park crematorium.

"Why? Why my little girl? Why did this happen? Why did he do this?" June Steenkamp, the victim's mother, told The Times of Johannesburg.

Gavin Venter, a former jockey who worked for the victim's father, a horse trainer, said on Tuesday: "She was an angel. She was so soft, so innocent. Such a lovely person. It's just sad that this could happen to somebody so good."

The killing has stunned a nation that had elevated Mr. Pistorius as an emblem of the ability to overcome acute adversity and a symbol of South Africa's ability to project its achievements onto the world stage.

Mr. Pistorius was born without fibula bones and both of his legs were amputated below the knee as an infant. But he became a Paralympic champion and the first Paralympic sprinter to compete against able-bodied athletes at the 2012 London Olympics.

But several companies have now withdrawn lucrative sponsorships and his case has played into an emotional debate in South Africa about violence against women.

Members of the Women's League of the ruling African National Congress protested outside the building, waving placards saying "No Bail for Pistorius," Reuters reported.

Lydia Polgreen reported from Pretoria, and Alan Cowell from London.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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