Oscar Pistorius takes the stand: ‘I was simply trying to protect Reeva.’


Oscar Pistorius reacts as he listens to evidence by a pathologist in court in Pretoria, South Africa, Monday, April 7, 2014. Pistorius is charged with murder for the shooting death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentines Day 2013. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, Pool)
Oscar Pistorius took the stand in his trial in South Africa on Monday and began by apologizing to the family of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. He is charged with her murder. (AP)

 

By almost any measure, Oscar Pistorius is a monument to man’s capacity to overcome adversity. In 1986, he was born in Johannesburg without fibulas in both legs. Eleven months later, both were amputated. But rather than destroy his sense of self-worth, his amputations defined it. Disability forged confidence. Shortcoming fueled strength.

In 2007, five years before he became the first double-amputee to compete in the Olympics, he told the Telegraph, “You’re not disabled by the disabilities you have; you’re [enabled] by the abilities you have.”

But Pistorius has never faced a challenge like this. More than one year after he blasted four bullets through his bathroom door, killing his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, Pistorius explained what had occurred that night.

After weeping and retching during a pathologist’s testimony earlier in the morning, Pistorius first apologized to the family of Steenkamp. “I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to Mr. and Mrs. Steenkamp, to Reeva’s family,” said Pistorius, who said he’s taking anti-depressants and sleeping pills. “To those of you who knew her who are in court today.”

Pistorius, who referred to himself as “charitable,” detailed the depression that has swallowed him. He has nightmares. He can’t sleep, nor does he want to. When he wakes, he smells his dead girlfriend’s blood. He’s haunted.

“There hasn’t been a moment I haven’t thought about this tragedy,” he said, his voice laden with emotion. “I was simply trying to protect Reeva. I can promise you when she went to bed that night she felt loved. I’ve tried to put my feelings in words to you several times, but no words ever sufficed.”

Pistorius, who pleaded not guilty last month, claims he thought an intruder had broken into his Pretoria mansion and, feeling vulnerable without his prosthetic legs, he fired his 9mm pistol to protect himself. Prosecutors, meanwhile, allege Pistorius murdered Steenkamp — who once told him, “I’m scared of you sometimes” – after a loud argument escalated into violence. 

Monday marked the first time the former Olympian has told his story under the risk of cross-examination. And now, after weeks of trial, analysts say the outcome rides on whether Pistorius’s testimony will survive scrutiny. “He can’t ignore it,” Marius du Toit, a South Africa criminal defense lawyer, told the Associated Press. “He has to get into the box and confirm his version and be open to cross-examination. And this matter is going to stand or fall with that.”

Pistorius’s version of events has repeatedly been cast into doubt over weeks of trial. The state has called several witnesses who say they heard shouting the night Steenkamp was killed before the gunshots, impugning Pistorius’s claim that yelling had only occurred after he’d realized Steenkamp was dead.

Clearly nervous and emotional when he first took the stand, Pistorius calmed as he elaborated on his childhood. He said his mother lent him the courage to overcome his disability, that she hadn’t wanted him to be different from other children. “If I fell, she told me to get up myself,” he said. “She treated me the same as my brother and sister.”

Though “it was difficult to adapt” as a child, he said “people’s perceptions of me changed because they saw how I perceived myself.”

Guns entered his life early. He said his mother was frightened. His father was often away, and he claimed they didn’t live in a nice area. His mother kept a pistol at home, the athlete added.

Her death had been “unexpected.” “My brother and I didn’t know she was sick. By the time [we heard], she was already in a coma.”

A South African court postponed the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius until April 7, when he is expected to take the stand. The delay comes as one of the legal aides who assists the judge is ill. (Reuters)
Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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