ZELDA VENTER, OMPHITLHETSE MOOKI, SHAIN GERMANER and BOTHO MOLOSANKWE
Pretoria - When Michelle Burger heard the terrified screams for help of a woman coming from a house 170m away, she knew immediately something bad was going to happen.
At the time, Burger thought someone had broken into the couple’s home because the man also started calling for help.
Then gunshots rang in the air, shattering the hot summer morning.
The woman’s screams stopped, confirming Burger’s worst fear about what was happening in that house.
“I hope that woman did not see her husband shot in front of her,” Burger said to herself.
Unbeknown to her, no one had broken into the house. Instead, Paralympian Oscar Pistorius had shot and killed his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp whom he claims he mistook for a burglar.
In a submission read by his defence counsel, Pistorius insisted he believed he was protecting himself and Steenkamp from an intruder when he fired four shots into a locked toilet door in his home on Valentine’s Day last year.
It was “unfair and incorrect” to say they had argued earlier that night, he added.
Burger fielded questions from Pistorius’s lawyer, Barry Roux, SC, in the Pretoria High Court on Monday.
Earlier, Pistorius had pleaded not guilty to all charges against him and entered a plea explanation into the court record.
While she and her husband gave a statement to the police afterwards about what they heard that night, Burger never thought she would one day end up in court to testify to that effect.
“Her screams were blood-curdling and petrified. It was the most helpless screams I have ever heard.
“I knew something terrible happened in that house. I could hear her life was in danger.”
Burger, a lecturer at the University of Pretoria, lives next door to Pistorius’s Silverwoods Estate.
She and her husband were woken up at about 3am to a woman’s petrified screams for help.
“It was a climax. She sounded very scared. She screamed terribly for help. I also heard a man calling for help… calling three times,” she said.
Her husband went out on to the balcony to see what was happening. “I told my husband I think someone is being attacked in their home and he should call security.
“I heard the screams again. It was worse, even more intense.
“It was like a climax… she sounded very scared. I then heard the shots: bang, bang, bang, bang! Four shots. I told my husband I hope that woman didn’t witness her husband being shot in front of her.
“After the shots, we didn’t hear her scream again,” she said.
Burger said she was convinced it was a house robbery.
She and her husband only got to know that the gunshots had been fired from Pistorius’s home the next day.
They had then decided to call lawyers to give statements as “we realised our evidence could be vital because we lived close to Mr Pistorius’s home”.
While they lived in the adjacent residential complex – Silver Stream Estate – their house was close to that of Pistorius and they could see his house from the balcony as their house was along the perimeter wall.
During cross-examination, Roux sought to punch holes in Burger’s evidence, saying she could have heard a cricket bat smashing through the door – not gunshots – and that the screams she heard could have been that of Pistorius, not Steenkamp’s.
“When Pistorius is anxious he pitches his voice. He sounds like a woman. I’ll bring a witness who’ll testify that Pistorius was anxious so (he) pitched his voice and ended up sounding like a woman. That’s why you heard a woman screaming,” Roux told Burger.
But Burger maintained that she heard a woman screaming. “I heard the angst in her voice. It was terrible. I cannot explain it to anyone.”
“If he (Pistorius) says Reeva wasn’t screaming is he lying?” asked Roux. Burger responded: “Unless he was somewhere else and didn’t hear it. I heard two people screaming (a man and a woman), not one. I don’t understand how Pistorius could not have heard the screams.”
Roux said: “You come from an attitude… when you heard Mr Pistorius’s version at the bail application you immediately decided it cannot be true.
“You decided if he said Reeva was not screaming, he was lying. In your view, he cannot be telling the truth.”
But Burger insisted that she could not understand that Pistorius failed to hear the woman’s cries that woke her.
Roux retorted: “What you believed was a woman screaming.”
State prosecutor Gerrie Nel objected one more time and asked for the witness to be treated fairly.
Roux put it to her that defence witnesses, who live further from Pistorius’s house than her, heard a man crying loudly, not a woman.
Roux queried Burger whether there could have been shots fired while she was still asleep, and that she heard the screams after the shooting.
But Burger denied this, saying she was woken by the sound of screams, and that she heard only four gunshots.
“I’m not saying you are lying. Sometimes at night you hear a sound and think you hear gunshots. It would be a hard boom, boom, boom. You’ve never heard a cricket bat hitting a door so hard that it breaks the door?” asked Roux.
Burger’s response was: “I’ve heard gunshots before.”
On Monday, Pistorius cut a lonely figure in the dock, his family sitting right behind him, while Steenkamp’s mother, June, and other relatives sat on the opposite side of the same bench.
He spent the day taking notes. His demeanour contrasted sharply with the emotional mess he was during his bail hearing in February last year.