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Oscar Pistorius neighour heard ‘hour-long row’

Athlete Oscar Pistorius covers his ears as he sits in court yesterday during the murder trial. Picture: Reuters

Athlete Oscar Pistorius covers his ears as he sits in court yesterday during the murder trial. Picture: Reuters

A SECOND witness at the trial of Oscar Pistorius has told how she was woken up by sounds of people fighting on the night the South African athlete is accused of killing his girlfriend.

Estelle Van Der Merwe, a neighbour, said the row had lasted about an hour early on 14 February last year – the day Reeva Steenkamp was killed.

She was the second witness to take the stand at the murder trial of 27-year-old double amputee Pistorius in Pretoria.

“It seemed like somebody was involved in a fight,” said Ms Van Der Merwe, who lives in the same gated housing estate as the Paralympic athlete. “People were talking in loud voices.”

Mrs Van Der Merwe said she had been annoyed by the noise and placed a pillow on her head “in hope of falling asleep again”.

She told how the argument woke her at about 2am and lasted about an hour. After that, she heard four loud sounds in succession.

The athlete has pleaded not guilty to intentionally killing his girlfriend Ms Steenkamp. He admits shooting the 29-year-old model at his home, but claims he mistook her for an intruder.

For the first time in South Africa, parts of the trial are being televised live, although some witness testimony is excluded from television broadcasts.

Yesterday’s hearing adjourned shortly after the prosecution’s third witness, Charl Peter Johnson – husband to the first witness, Michelle Burger – had taken the stand.

Earlier, Mrs Burger broke down in tears as she continued to give evidence, saying she still remembers the terrified screams of a woman on the night the athlete killed his girlfriend by shooting four times through a bathroom door.

University lecturer Mrs Burger, who also lives near Pistorius’s home and who had been composed through two days of cross-examination, wept as she finished her testimony by speaking about how she had reflected on the incident.

“When I’m in the shower, I relive her shouts,” she said of hearing the woman screaming before the sound of gunshots in the pre-dawn hours of that day. Mrs Burger lives about 180 metres from Pistorius’s house.

The trial was briefly interrupted when Judge Thokozile Masipa ordered an investigation into allegations a South African television channel was broadcasting a photograph of Mrs Burger during her testimony, breaking a court order guaranteeing privacy to witnesses who request it.

Towards the end of Mrs Burger’s testimony, Gerrie Nel, the prosecutor, asked her about her emotions when she made her statement to police regarding what she heard that night.

“It was quite raw,” Mrs Burger said, her voice breaking.

Pistorius says he shot four times through the toilet cubicle door, hitting Ms Steenkamp three times in the head, arm and hip or side area after thinking she was an intruder.

Mrs Burger’s testimony about events on the night contradicts the Olympian’s story. During cross-examination of Mrs Burger, defence lawyer Barry Roux insisted she was mistaken in saying she heard a woman screaming and that she actually had heard Pistorius screaming for help in a high voice after accidentally shooting Ms Steenkamp.

Giving sometimes grisly details of the killing of Ms Steenkamp, Mr Roux said she had been shot in the head, which would have resulted in brain damage and “no cognitive function” – so she would not have been able to scream just after the last bullet struck, as Mrs Burger testified.

But Mrs Burger disagreed, saying: “I heard her voice just after the last shot. It faded away.”

Pistorius took notes during testimony and huddled with lawyers during adjournments. His collected demeanour contrasted with his sometimes distraught behaviour during a bail hearing last year, when he sobbed in court. But at one point yesterday he covered his ears and looked to the floor.

Some witnesses said the only time Pistorius looked anxious was when he prepared to leave the courthouse after the day’s proceedings were adjourned.

Pistorius faces a life sentence with a minimum of 25 years in prison before parole if convicted of murder.

He has also denied charges of illegally possessing ammunition.

There are no juries at trials in South Africa, and his fate will ultimately be decided by Judge Masipa.

Much of the case will depend on ballistic evidence from the scene of the shooting.

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