PRETORIA, South Africa — Using witness accounts of a panicked nighttime phone call from Oscar Pistorius begging for help and his desperate pleas for Reeva Steenkamp to stay alive, the defense at his murder trial tried to reinforce its case Monday that the double-amputee Olympian fatally shot his girlfriend in a tragic error.
Johan Stander and his daughter Carice Viljoen, neighbors and friends of Pistorius, testified that they were at the runner’s villa soon after the shooting on Feb. 14, 2013 and that Pistorius was praying, trying to help Steenkamp breathe and urging her to live.
Viljoen testified that Pistorius was saying to Steenkamp as she lay on the floor with multiple gunshot wounds: “Stay with me, my love, stay with me.”
The runner had shot four times through a bathroom door with his 9 mm pistol minutes earlier, hitting Steenkamp in the hip, arm and head. He claims he thought she was a dangerous intruder in the cubicle in his darkened bathroom.
Prosecutors maintain Pistorius, 27, is lying about the perceived trespasser, and his story is designed to cover up that he killed the 29-year-old model intentionally in the midst of a heated argument. The first amputee to run at the Olympics in 2012, Pistorius faces 25 years to life in prison if convicted of a premeditated murder charge.
The testimonies from the neighbors began the seventh week of proceedings in the globally televised trial, which resumed after a two-week recess.
Stander testified that Pistorius phoned him at around 3:19 a.m. – about two minutes after the shooting. Pistorius told him he had thought Steenkamp was an intruder and shot her, Stander testified, and Stander and his daughter went to Pistorius’ house after the runner pleaded for him to come and help.
“I saw the truth there that morning. I saw it and I feel it,” Stander testified, saying he believed that the shooting was accidental because of Pistorius’ desperation when they found him carrying a bloodied Steenkamp downstairs from the upstairs bathroom. Pistorius was “really crying. He was in pain,” Stander said.
Stander’s own voice shook at one point and he became emotional as he described Pistorius’ state.
“He was torn apart, broken, desperate, pleading,” Stander said. “It’s difficult really to describe.”
The defense was trying to underline its scenario that Pistorius was emotionally distressed after shooting Steenkamp by mistake. Pistorius’ lawyers were also trying to regain some momentum after chief prosecutor Gerrie Nel put Pistorius under intense pressure during the runner’s own testimony, which appeared to show some inconsistencies in his story.
The prosecution has preferred to focus on events before the killing – and not Pistorius’ demeanor afterward – to try and show that his version is a fabrication, including that he never attempted to locate Steenkamp despite knowing she was awake before walking to the bathroom on his stumps and firing through the door.
Cross-examining Stander, Nel questioned if he was a good friend of Pistorius and therefore trying to “assist” the defense. Stander said he had known Pistorius since 2009 and looked after his home and dogs when he was away. Nel asked if the friendship led him to back Pistorius’ story. Stander said he also knew Steenkamp.
“I’m here to give the truth,” Stander said. “And I think I’ve given the truth, what I saw that morning.”
Nel’s manner in cross-examining both Stander and Viljoen was relatively subdued in contrast to his aggressive questioning during his five-day questioning of Pistorius, and of two expert witnesses for the defense.
Stander earlier recounted the telephone call from Pistorius that woke him up in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine’s Day.
“He (Pistorius) said on the call, ‘Johan, please, please, please come to my house. Please. I shot Reeva. I thought she was an intruder. Please come quick,’” Stander said.
Viljoen testified that when they arrived at the house, Pistorius begged her to help him get Steenkamp into a car so they could take her to a hospital. Viljoen said she urged Pistorius to “just put her down” so they could try and stop the bleeding. As Viljoen spoke, her voice broke and she became tearful.
“I just saw blood everywhere,” she said. Her father stepped outside to telephone an ambulance, Viljoen said, and she went upstairs to fetch towels to stop the bleeding. Pistorius was pleading for Steenkamp to stay alive, she said.
“He kept on egging Reeva to just stay with him,” she testified.