Pistorius tells court killing was accident

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PRETORIA, South Africa -- Cold-blooded, planned murder or a terrible, heartbreaking accident? The competing versions of the killing of model and law school graduate Reeva Steenkamp by her superstar boyfriend, Oscar Pistorius, offered in court Tuesday were compelling each in its way.

Mr. Pistorius, the double amputee athlete who competed in last year's London Olympic Games, wept so uncontrollably that at one point Chief Magistrate Desmond Nair had to pause the proceedings so the runner could compose himself.

In the prosecution's version, Ms. Steenkamp cowered terrified behind the locked door of an enclosed toilet after a quarrel, as Mr. Pistorius strapped on his prosthetic legs, grabbed his pistol, strode seven yards to the door and fired four times through it, killing her. She had nowhere to hide as four bullets pounded through the door, three of them hitting her.

If convicted of premeditated murder, Mr. Pistorius, 26, who inspired the world by overcoming adversity to compete in the Olympics, faces life in prison.

But the way Mr. Pistorius told it, he adored Ms. Steenkamp and was shattered by her death. "We were deeply in love, and I could not be happier," he said in a court affidavit. "I am absolutely mortified by the events and the devastating loss of my beloved Reeva."

According to his statement, it was pitch-dark when he heard noises in the bathroom that night, and assuming that it was an intruder, he grabbed his gun and hurried to protect himself and Ms. Steenkamp, without stopping to put on his prosthetic legs.

South Africa has one of the highest rates of violent crime globally, and break-ins often result in homeowners being tortured, raped or killed by intruders. But one of the biggest categories of violent crime in South Africa is the killing of women, with the majority carried out by people they know.

One of the few points of agreement between the prosecution and the defense Tuesday was that Mr. Pistorius fired four shots through the door, and that those shots killed Ms. Steenkamp, 29.

One of the major differences between the two sides is the prosecution's contention that Mr. Pistorius paused to put on his prosthetic legs and grab his gun -- important elements of the argument that it was a planned murder -- and the defense position that he didn't stop to put on his legs. The runner said being without them as he moved on his stumps to confront a perceived threat heightened his sense of terror and vulnerability.

"I deny the [murder] allegation in the strongest terms," Mr. Pistorius said in his affidavit, read to the court by his lawyer, Barry Roux. "I fail to understand how I could be charged with murder, let alone premeditated murder, as I had no intention to kill my girlfriend."

According to Mr. Pistorius, the couple had planned to spend the evening of Feb. 13 apart with friends, but instead opted to stay in for a quiet dinner. About 10 p.m., they went to the bedroom, where he watched TV with his prosthetic legs off while she did yoga before they turned in.

During the night, Mr. Pistorius said in his affidavit, he woke and went out on a balcony without his prosthetic legs to get a fan. He then heard noises in the bathroom.

"I felt a sense of terror rushing over me. ... I believed that someone had entered my house. I was too scared to switch a light on. I grabbed my 9 millimeter pistol from underneath my bed. ... It was pitch dark in the bedroom, and I thought Reeva was in bed."

Mr. Pistorius said he had received death threats and had been a victim of violence and robberies.

"As I did not have my prosthetic legs on and felt extremely vulnerable, I knew I had to protect Reeva and myself," the affidavit said. He said he screamed out at the intruder to get out of the house and opened fire through the toilet door, yelling at Ms. Steenkamp to phone the police. She did not respond.

"When I reached the bed, I realized that Reeva was not in bed. That is when it dawned on me that it could have been Reeva who was in the toilet."

According to Mr. Pistorius, he put on his prosthetic legs, broke down the door with a cricket bat, carried her downstairs and tried to revive her. "But she died in my arms," he said.

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel dismissed Mr. Pistorius' description of what happened that night. "There is no possible information to support his version that it was a burglar," Mr. Nel said. But even if he had made that mistake, Mr. Nel contended, it still would have been a premeditated murder, because he shot through the door into a tiny room containing just the toilet and measuring no more than 16 square feet. Under South African law, a person needs to be facing a real and immediate threat to his or her life before firing on an intruder.

Mr. Nel contended that Ms. Steenkamp fled to the toilet after a quarrel and locked herself in. No one would fire into a room of that size hoping merely to scare off a burglar, he said.

"If I arm myself, walk a distance and murder a person, that is premeditated," he said. "The door is closed. There is no doubt. I walk seven meters and I kill. The motive is 'I want to kill.' "

Tuesday's proceedings were a bail hearing, but many of the main contentions of the prosecution and defense cases were aired. The main focus was whether Mr. Pistorius' actions amounted to premeditated murder, which requires an accused person to show exceptional circumstances to justify bail.

Magistrate Nair ruled in favor of the prosecution: For the purposes of the bail hearing, the charge was to be premeditated murder. The decision makes it more likely that he will spend months in jail awaiting trial.

In his affidavit, Mr. Pistorius pleaded for bail, offering to turn in his passport, promising not to approach witnesses and contending that his further incarceration during the trial would not benefit the state.

The bail hearing was continued until today, and Mr. Pistorius was remanded into custody.

world


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