PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — A married couple who lived next to the house where Oscar Pistorius fatally shot his girlfriend testified Tuesday at the athlete’s murder trial about the night of the killing, saying they both heard a man crying loudly in a high-pitched voice and calling three times for help.
Michael Nhlengethwa and his wife Eontle were Pistorius’ next-door neighbors and summoned to testify by the Olympian’s defense, which is trying to cast doubt on previous witness accounts of a woman screaming in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 14, 2013. The couple said they never heard a woman’s voice.
The prosecution contends that Pistorius and girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp had a heated nighttime argument before she fled to the bathroom screaming and he shot her through a closed toilet door.
Pistorius, the famed double-amputee runner, claims he killed Steenkamp by mistake because he believed she was an intruder in the toilet cubicle. He shot four times through the wood door with his 9 mm pistol, hitting her in the hip, arm and head.
The defense argues Steenkamp did not scream on the night, disputing a vital part of the prosecution case.
In cross-examination Tuesday, chief prosecutor Gerrie Nel established that neither of the next-door neighbors heard the gunshots and suggested they slept through the actual shooting and their testimony only reflected events after Steenkamp had already been shot.
Eontle Nhlengethwa said she was woken first by a “loud bang.” Nel said it was the sound of Pistorius breaking down the toilet door with a cricket bat and the shooting had already happened.
Pistorius faces 25 years to life in prison if convicted on a charge of premeditated murder for Steenkamp’s killing.
Michael Nhlengethwa testified that his wife woke him up after hearing the bang. He said he then heard a man crying in the high-pitched voice that indicated he urgently needed help. Nhlengethwa could not make out most of what the man was saying, though he heard the words: “No, please, please, no.”
His wife, who testified directly after him as the defense’s seventh witness, even attempted to recreate the sound she heard on the night, letting out a high-pitched wail on the witness stand before adding the cry was “in a man’s voice.”
During the testimonies, Pistorius sat on a wooden bench in the courtroom, looking impassively at the witnesses at times.
The neighbors’ bedroom window was around 25 meters (80 feet) from the balcony doors of Pistorius’ bedroom, Michael Nhlengethwa testified, and much closer than neighbors called by prosecutors and who said they heard a woman screaming. The defense was trying to present the Nhlengethwas as more reliable witnesses on the events of the night because of how much closer they lived to Pistorius’ villa. A neighbor who testified to hearing a woman’s “blood-curdling” screams on the night lived around 170 meters (560 feet) from Pistorius’ house.
Nhlengethwa testified that he also called estate security to ask them to come to their road.
“I hear there’s a man who is crying and I think he is desperate for help,” Nhlengethwa said he told them.
Earlier, security checks at the courthouse where Pistorius is on trial were disrupted because of what police said was a protest over work conditions by security staff, who left their posts and gathered outside the building. Some people entered the courthouse without having their bags checked, and Pistorius was heard asking whether a security check had been conducted as he entered the courtroom.
Nhlengethwa, who said he runs a civil engineering company, described early in his testimony how Pistorius was the first neighbor to welcome him to the gated community when he moved there in late 2009.
“He was basically that friendly neighbor,” Nhlengethwa said. He said he also met Steenkamp once on the weekend before she was killed by Pistorius, and was struck by the warmth of her personality.
“I don’t think I will ever forget that moment,” he said. “She just opened her arms. She just came and hugged me.”
Imray reported from Stellenbosch, South Africa.