Oscar Pistorius, the Paralympic athlete accused of murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, cried and prayed over her body and begged God to "let her live,” according to testimony by a neighbor that rushed to the fateful bathroom shooting scene early in the morning on Valentine’s Day, a year ago.
The neighbor, a radiologist named Johan Stipp, is actually a witness for the prosecution in the celebrity murder trial which began Monday.
But Dr. Stipp’s testimony is being considered dramatic enough to later be used by the defense in their framing of the trial's key question: Was Ms. Steenkamp shot in a tragic mistake or in a deliberate crime of passion?
The defense says the killing was a mistake and Pistorius shot through a bathroom door thinking Ms. Steenkamp was a possible burglar.
Stipp said Pistorius, a double-amputee known as the “Blade Runner” for the carbon-fiber legs on which he competes, told him when he arrived on the scene that he had shot Steenkamp, thinking she was an intruder. Stipp, whose residence is about 100 yards away, had heard shouts and shots and ran over. Stipp testified he believed the athlete was "sincere" in his grief as he knelt over Steenkamp's body trying to stem the bleeding and keep her breathing.
"I remember the first thing he said when I got there was 'I shot her, I thought she was a burglar and I shot her'," Stipp told the court. "He was crying, praying, talking to God, telling him please let her live, don't let her die. I don't know – maybe trying to get atonement," he said. "He looked sincere to me. He was crying, had tears on his face."
On Monday the prosecution, which says Pistorius intentionally shot Steenkamp after a long row, opened with two witnesses who immediately created a high hurdle for the defense to clear. One witness, also a neighbor, said she heard an hour of loud arguing from the Pistorius townhouse that eventually led to “bloodcurdling” female screams and shouts that were then followed by the sound of four shots.
A sequence of screams, then shots, is a challenge to the Pistorius claim of a misidentified intruder.
Analysts say the prosecution likely called Stipp since aspects of his testimony support their claim of a conscious murder: Stipp said there had been lights on in the Pistorius bathroom and that he heard female screams followed by shots – both of which contradict the Pistorius intruder claim.
Stipp said there were "no signs of life" when he examined Steenkamp at the scene. As he graphically described the model's condition for the court, Pistorius leaned forward looking like he was ill. The sprinter kept his head down and appeared at points to be blocking out the testimony; his hands were trembling and locked behind his neck and over his ears as the doctor spoke.
Stipp is the seventh witness to give evidence in the high-profile murder trial at Pretoria High Court in South Africa.
He said he was woken by three gunshots, then heard a woman screaming, and then heard three more bangs. Pistorius' lawyer insists that the screams were his client panicking after realizing he had shot his girlfriend, and that the later bangs heard after the screams were Pistorius trying to beat down the toilet door with a cricket bat.
"I got out of bed and went to the balcony. As I looked out trying to ascertain where it was coming from, I heard screaming," Stipp said. "It sounded to me like it was a female. She screamed three or four times. I went back into the room and phoned security."
The court was shown photographs of the neighborhood demonstrating that Stipp is the closest person to have heard the incident. He said he noticed the lights were on in Pistorius' bathroom and saw a figure move past the window. Pistorius has said he was "too scared" to switch on the bathroom lights until after he fired the shots.