PRETORIA, South Africa -- It was bold and theatrical, the kind of flourish more often seen in courtroom dramas than in real-life murder trials. In the middle of his emotional and harrowing testimony Tuesday, champion sprinter Oscar Pistorius stood up in the packed courtroom, removed his prosthetic legs and demonstrated in a few ungainly steps how very vulnerable and exposed he can be with only his stumps to depend on.
The moment came on a grueling day in which a shaky, tearful Mr. Pistorius for the first time gave a full account of what he says happened the night he shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. And it went toward bolstering the defense case: that Mr. Pistorius, the world's most celebrated disabled athlete, is at the same time an anxious and physically fragile man who sprayed bullets through the door of his bathroom in a panic because he believed someone had broken into his house.
By Mr. Pistorius' account, it had been a routine evening with Steenkamp, 29, a law graduate and model he had met several months earlier. The two had eaten dinner together at Mr. Pistorius' house, in a gated Pretoria development, and then gone upstairs to his bedroom. There they whiled away the evening texting, surfing the Internet, watching television and chatting before eventually falling asleep.
Feb. 13 was a hot and muggy night, Mr. Pistorius testified, and his air conditioning wasn't working. He awoke in the middle of the night, spoke to Steenkamp, who he says was also awake, and then -- without turning on the lights or putting on his prosthetic legs -- went to the balcony next to his bedroom to move electric fans he had set up there, he said. Then, he heard a noise, and the mundane turned to the horrifying.
"My lady, that's the moment that everything changed," he told Judge Thokozile Masipa, his voice faltering. "I thought that a burglar had entered my home. Initially, I froze; I didn't know what to do. The first thing that ran through my mind is that I needed to protect myself, that I needed to protect Reeva and I."
Mr. Pistorius is accused of murdering Steenkamp by shooting her four times in a fit of violent rage as the two argued late into the night. If convicted of the most serious charges, he faces at least 25 years in prison.
He contends there was no argument at all, that it was a tragic mistake, that he grabbed his gun from under the bed and went down the hall in search of the intruders. By his account, he believed that Steenkamp had remained in bed, in their dark bedroom, because he had spoken to her before getting up, and that she failed to respond to his screams because she feared for her own safety from intruders.
Even under the mildest of questioning by his own defense lawyer, Barry Roux, Mr. Pistorius stuttered, paused, cried, lowered his voice to a whisper and at times could barely maintain his composure. When he got to the crucial part -- where he fired through the bathroom door, believing himself in danger, only to discover Steenkamp's blood-spattered body inside moments later -- he began weeping.
"I was just panicked at this point," he said, describing how he had taken the cricket bat he kept in his bedroom and used it to batter down the locked door. After bashing it open, he said, he sat over Steenkamp's body. "I sat over Reeva and I cried," he said -- for how long, he can't remember. "She wasn't breathing."
At that point in his testimony, he broke down completely and could not continue. The court took a hasty break, and Mr. Pistorius' brother, sister and aunt gathered around the witness stand to comfort him. But his gasping sobs continued. The court was forced to adjourn early.
Mr. Pistorius has not yet finished his testimony. But his lack of composure Tuesday does not augur well for how he will stand up under cross-examination by prosecutor Gerrie Nel, known for aggressive, unforgiving questioning and his ability to break down witnesses.