JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Oscar Pistorius’s neighbor is haunted by the screams she remembers hearing that night.
The terrifying sounds were followed by desperate calls for help, and then more screams, worse this time, Michelle Burger told a Pretoria court Monday. And then four gunshots.
Burger’s dramatic testimony began the highly anticipated trial of Pistorius, the South African Olympic and Paralympic sprinter accused of murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in the early hours of Feb. 14, 2013.
In a country where violent home invasions are a frighteningly real prospect, Burger heard the woman screaming and thought that neighbors were under attack by robbers. Perhaps the woman’s husband had been shot, she thought.
“It was the most helpless screaming I have ever heard in my life. I knew something terrible was happening in that house,” Burger told the court. “You only shout like that if your life was really threatened. It was bloodcurdling.”
“It was very traumatic," she added. “You can’t translate it into words, the anxiousness in her voice and fear. It leaves you cold.”
Strangely, Pistorius’s defense in the trial is that he, like Burger, thought there might be a robber in his home. The athlete claims he mistook Steenkamp, a law graduate turned model and reality TV star, for an intruder who had broken into his house and was hiding behind a bathroom door.
Pistorius’s murder trial is being covered by hundreds of reporters from South Africa and around the world. On Monday outside the North Gauteng High Court in downtown Pretoria, a drone carrying cameras filmed from overhead, while the street was lined with TV satellite trucks and journalists.
A “pop up” TV channel devoted to 24-hour coverage of the trial launched Sunday night in South Africa, featuring commentators including O.J. Simpson defender Robert Shapiro, American forensic experts, and police consultants to crime dramas like “Dexter.”
In court, Burger was cross-examined by defense lawyer Barry Roux, who suggested she might have heard not gunshots, but rather the sound of Pistorius bashing down the bathroom door with a cricket bat after he realized it wasn’t an intruder.
Burger, gesturing to the courtroom, said that most people — and “especially South Africans” — would be familiar enough with the sound of gunshots to tell the difference.
While crime rates have declined in South Africa in recent years, serious, violent crime remains abnormally high compared to many other countries.
Throughout the day, Pistorius sat in the dock scribbling furiously in a notepad, at times passing notes to his legal team. While in the past Pistorius has seemed shaken and emotional at court appearances, he now appeared actively engaged in the proceedings.
The 27-year-old’s family members, including sister Aimee and brother Carl, were there to support them. Nearby sat Steenkamp’s mother June, who was facing her daughter’s killer for the first time.
Asked to respond to the murder charge against him, Pistorius, in a dark suit and tie, told Judge Thokozile Mapisa: "Not guilty, m'lady." He also pleaded not guilty to unlawful possession of ammunition that was found at his house during the police investigation, and two unrelated charges of recklessly discharging a firearm — once at a Johannesburg restaurant and once through the sunroof of a girlfriend's car.
The trial is scheduled to continue for three weeks, but may go longer. And the stakes are high: local commentators have described it as not only Pistorius on trial, but South Africa’s criminal justice system as well.