PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA – Oscar Pistorius pleaded not guilty Monday to murdering his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day last year, marking the start of the Olympian’s murder trial that was being broadcast live on TV.
The first witness, a neighbor of Pistorius, was called before even an hour had passed. The trial itself started 90 minutes late with Pistorius pleading not guilty to murder, two charges relating to discharge of firearm in a public place and one charge of illegal possession of ammunition.
The double-amputee athlete is charged with murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 14, 2013. Pistorius says he shot Steenkamp by accident, thinking she was an intruder inside his bathroom.
Before the trial started, Pistorius walked past the victim’s mother who says she came to court so she can “really look him in the eyes.”
Defense lawyer Kenny Oldwadge laid out Pistorius’ legal strategy, reading a statement from the runner in which he says the killing was an accident and that there were inconsistencies in the state’s case, as well as an attempt to introduce inadmissible character evidence to discredit him.
In the statement, Pistorius said he brought two fans in from the balcony on the night of the killing, after speaking to his girlfriend who was in bed beside him. He said Steenkamp must have gone into the bathroom while he was fetching the fans. Pistorius said he did not notice that she had gone and heard the bathroom window open.
“I approached the bathroom, armed with my firearm, so as to defend Reeva and I,” Pistorius said in the statement that was read by his lawyer.
He said he then heard a noise in the toilet, and was in a “fearful state” because he was unable to run away or defend himself physically since he was not wearing his prostheses.
“The state has embarked on a strategy to rely on unsubstantiated allegations,” he said, citing a neighbor’s testimony that an argument had been heard in his home.
According to Pistorius’ statement, other neighbors living nearby said they had not heard any argument.
He also cited evidence provided by police detective Hilton Botha as “false in material respects.”
“The scene was contaminated, disturbed and tampered with,” the defense statement said. “This feature of the state’s case will be dealt with when Botha, among others, gives evidence.”
In the courtroom, Pistorius, wearing a dark gray suit and black tie, was seated near Steenkamp’s mother, June. She was quoted in the Pretoria News, which published an interview she gave to a British newspaper, saying that she wants to see Pistorius.
“I want to look at Oscar, really look him in the eyes, and see for myself the truth about what he did to Reeva,” said June Steenkamp, 67. “Whatever the court decides at the end of his trial, I will be ready to forgive him . . . But first I want to force him to look at me, Reeva’s mother, and see the pain and anguish he has inflicted on me. I feel I need that.”
Reeva Steenkamp was a glamorous model and budding reality TV show star when she was cut down at age 29.
Earlier, a drone carrying cameras flew over the entrance to the courthouse in gray, drizzly skies. Several broadcasters massed live broadcast satellite trucks around the courthouse. A 24-hour cable channel devoted to covering the trial was launched in South Africa on Sunday.
If convicted on the murder charge, Pistorius could be sent to prison for at least 25 years before the chance of parole, the minimum time someone must serve if given a life sentence in South Africa. South Africa does not have the death penalty.
A lesser sentence is possible if Pistorius is found guilty of murder but without premeditation. He also could be convicted of culpable homicide, South Africa’s version of manslaughter in which someone is killed through negligence.
The additional firearms charges relate to him allegedly shooting out of the sunroof of a car in one incident and another when he allegedly fired a gun inside a restaurant, apparently by mistake.
Judge Thokozile Masipa, hearing the biggest trial of her career, will ultimately pronounce the champion runner innocent or guilty and will decide on any sentence. South Africa has no trial by jury.
Parts of the trial will be broadcast on live television, both in South Africa and across the world. A South African cable channel has been launched which will provide 24-hour coverage of the Pistorius trial, using commentators and prepared feature stories when the court is not in session.