Blood-curdling screams before shots, says Pistorius witness

"BLOOD curdling screams," followed by the sound of gunfire, were heard coming from the home of Oscar Pistorius on the night he shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, according to the first witness to testify in the case, which began yesterday at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, South Africa.

"The fear in that woman's voice, you only fear like that if your life is threatened," said Dr Michell Burger, whose home is next to the boundary of the Silverwoods Estate where Pistorius's villa is situated.

Dr Burger said she and her husband were awoken by the sound at around 3am.

"I sat upright in bed and my husband also woke up," she said. "My husband jumped up and went to the balcony. I was still sitting in the bed and heard her screams. She screamed terribly and yelled for help. And then I also heard a man screaming for help three times, he yelled for help.

"When the shots started I heard a woman scream. It was during the shots that I heard her. After the fourth shot, her screams faded away." Dr Burger said there had been a long pause between the first shot and the subsequent three. "It was bam (pause) bam bam bam." She recalled: "I said, 'I hope that woman did not see her husband being shot in front of her' because after he called for help we did not hear him again."

After hearing on the news the next day that Pistorius shot his girlfriend thinking she was an intruder, Ms Burger said: "It can't be because it is not what we heard."

The events she claims to have overheard paint a very different picture to Oscar Pistorius's account, a story he indicated he will be sticking to.

In a dark suit, black tie and white shirt, Oscar Pistorius rose only to speak the words "not guilty, my lady" on four separate occasions, as the state prosecutor read out four charges against him.

One is that he "intentionally killed" Reeva Steenkamp. The other three are comparatively minor firearms charges: that he discharged a gun through the open sun roof of a car and in a Johannesburg restaurant, and had illegal ammunition at his home - incidents that may be important when the state attempts to portray him as volatile, reckless and obsessed with guns.

In a statement read to the court by Kenny Oldwage, a member of his defence team, Pistorius said he and Ms Steenkamp were in a "loving relationship" and "that I would want to shoot or kill Reeva cannot be further from the truth".

The state claims Ms Steenkamp was deliberately killed by Pistorius after an argument at his Pretoria home, which he again denied. "There was no argument. I will deny this in the strongest possible terms," he said.

Pistorius's defence counsel Barry Roux was hostile in his questioning of Dr Burger, suggesting the noises she heard were not gunfire, but the sound of Pistorius breaking down the bathroom door with a cricket bat, and the high-pitched screams that sounded like a female voice were in fact from a highly anguished Pistorius.

"Do you believe the man?" Roux asked her. "Or do you believe that Oscar Pistorius lied at the bail application? I have asked you this question five times and you haven't answered it."

He also took her to task for what he felt were discrepancies between the statement she had given police and the claims she made in court. There is no mention of "blood-curdling screams and rising levels of anxiety" in her police statement, merely that she "heard a scream".

But Dr Burger stuck to her story that she was "100 per cent sure" that the sound she heard was gunfire. "I know what gunshot sounds like," she said.

Questions over Pistorius's character will form a central part of the case in the coming weeks, and Pistorius's team said they will fight to prevent such evidence being admitted. "The only purpose of admitting character evidence would be an attempt to engineer an assassination of my character," the athlete said. "My lawyers will object to the admittance of such character evidence."

Prosecutors are still hopeful of gaining access to messages on Pistorius's iPhone which they hope will shed light on what may have happened in the final hours before Ms Steenkamp's death. They are trying to secure a US court order to instruct Apple to unlock the phone, as the password provided by Pistorius's legal team has not worked.

They admit it is a "fishing expedition", but they hope messages contained on the phone may reveal the cause of arguments reportedly overheard in Pistorius's home in the hours before the shooting.

If convicted of murder Pistorius will almost certainly receive a life sentence, with a minimum term of 25 years. If found not guilty on the murder charge, he will likely face a charge of "culpable homicide" - South Africa's equivalent of manslaughter, for which the sentence could range from a suspended, non-custodial sentence to 15 years in jail.

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