The choking and wailing sounds that filled the courtroom were almost animal-like in their wildness. Oscar Pistorius was howling with an uncontrollable grief, too shaken to continue his testimony at his murder trial.
It remained unclear whether he was grieving only for his dead girlfriend or also for himself and his devastated life and career. But regardless of his still-unproven guilt or innocence, there was no doubt of his agonizing sorrow as he described the shooting of Reeva Steenkamp in public for the first time. This was no theatrical performance – even court veterans had never seen anything like it before.
Mr. Pistorius, the famed “Blade Runner” who made history as a double-amputee sprinter at the Olympics, portrayed himself as a terrified and panicky man who had grabbed his 9 mm pistol to protect Ms. Steenkamp and himself from what he thought was a deadly threat from intruders at 3 a.m. on Valentine’s Day last year.
Instead he ended up killing Ms. Steenkamp by firing four bullets through a locked toilet door.
It began with a seemingly ordinary sound – a small bathroom window opening and shutting – but it sent him into a spiral of fear and desperation, he testified on Tuesday.
“That’s the moment that everything changed,” Mr. Pistorius tearfully told his murder trial. “I thought a burglar was gaining entry to my home.”
He said he rushed toward the bathroom with his gun in his hand, screaming and shouting. Then he heard the toilet door slam and thought an armed intruder could be preparing to attack him, he said.
After firing the four gunshots, with his ears ringing from the noise, he searched his darkened bedroom and realized his girlfriend wasn’t there. He said he battered down the toilet door and discovered Ms. Steenkamp on the floor.
“I sat over Reeva and I cried,” he said, breaking into loud sobs, unable to continue. His final words of the day, barely audible through his weeping, were: “She wasn’t breathing.”
Judge Thokozile Masipa quickly ordered a break in proceedings and his family rushed to comfort him in the witness box, while Ms. Steenkamp’s mother, June, watched stoically from a courtroom bench. Earlier, she had cried as she heard the Pistorius version of her daughter’s death for the first time.
Even after the short break, defence lawyer Barry Roux asked the judge to adjourn until Wednesday, saying that Mr. Pistorius’s shirt was “soaking wet” from his tears. It was the second consecutive day when the defence asked for an early adjournment because of his emotional state. Earlier in his testimony, he had retched and a vomit bucket was brought into the witness box.
The defence strategy is to portray Mr. Pistorius as a disabled man who felt deeply vulnerable and unsafe in his home because of widespread crime and his handicap. In a dramatic moment on Tuesday, Mr. Pistorius switched into shorts and a T-shirt and showed the court how he walks on his stumps, without his prosthetic legs. He has said he cannot balance properly on his stumps.
His testimony about his screams and shouts could help the defence to counter the testimony of several neighbours who said they heard a woman’s screams before the shooting. But he has not yet explained why he didn’t wait for a response from Ms. Steenkamp before shooting at the locked door.
Later this week, Mr. Pistorius is expected to face a gruelling series of tough questions from the prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, who is renowned in South Africa as a bulldog of a cross-examiner.
In his testimony, Mr. Pistorius said he felt frozen and “overcome with fear” when he heard the bathroom window opening and shutting. He said he grabbed his pistol from under the bed, frightened because the bathroom was just a few metres away.
He said he screamed at the “intruders” to leave, while shouting at Ms. Steenkamp to “get down.”
He portrayed the gunshots as almost an involuntary or unplanned action. “Before I knew it, I had fired four shots at the door,” he said. Then he rushed back to the bedroom, still believing Ms. Steenkamp was there, even searching behind the curtains because he thought she was hiding.
Mr. Pistorius said he went to his balcony to scream for help. “I don’t think I’ve ever screamed or cried like that. I was crying out to the Lord to help me.”
In earlier testimony on Tuesday, Mr. Pistorius flatly denied that he had fired his 9 mm pistol through the open sunroof of a car in September, 2012, despite testimony from two friends who had been in the car. He also denied asking a friend to take the blame for a shooting incident at a restaurant.