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SA crime attitude gets first (but not last) Pistorius airing

Phillip De Wet

The first witness's testimony in the Oscar Pistorious trial, saying she feared violent crime in her residential complex, may well feature again.

Photographers wait outside the high court in Pretoria to catch a glimpse of Oscar Pistorius. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

What does it mean when a woman screams in the night? Though damning at first glance, the first Oscar Pistorius witness on Monday bolstered an important defence claim.

The state team prosecuting Pistorius knew what it was doing when it called its first witness during the initial session of the trial on Monday morning; Pistorius's neighbour Michelle Burger, a lecturer at the University of Pretoria, provided a cogent, detailed account of what she and her husband heard on the night of February 13 2013, at the same time as Reeva Steenkamp was fatally shot.

But her assumptions about what she heard may yet come to haunt the prosecution when Pistorius's defence team rolls out a central pillar of their argument: Pistorius was afraid of criminals.

Burger, carefully led in her evidence by prosecutor Gerrie Nel, told of being woken up by the screams of a woman, further screams for help by a man, then an interval during which her husband had time to have two telephone conversations, then even worse screams – and then gunshots: one shot, a pause, then three more shots.

Burger had yet to be cross-examined by the time of publication but the defence team is likely to work hard to undermine her confidence, find contradictions in her testimony, and devalue her worth to the circumstantial case against Pistorius.

Yet Burger's testimony already provided one handy hook for the defence: Burger and her husband feared violent crime in their secure estate, and believed it to be taking place nearby.

First thought, robbery
In her testimony in Afrikaans, even more so than in the translation provided to the court, it was immediately clear that on hearing screams, Burger assumed she was hearing the result of a home robbery. After the shots were fired, she feared she had heard "a woman seeing her husband shot in front of her".

Statistically, across the country but more so in richer, better guarded neighbourhoods, a domestic disturbance is far more likely to be the source of shouting in the night than violent crime.

This data, however, did not figure in how Burger and her husband interpreted what they heard. The morning after the incident, Burger testified, her husband took measurements of their home with a view to improving their security.

The extensive and unusually detailed plea explanation read on behalf of Pistorius before Burger's testimony made it clear that the defence team will continue to argue – as it did during bail proceedings last year – that Pistorius fired a handgun thinking his home had been invaded by what he believed to be a potentially violent intruder.

Whether or not the statistics support such a belief will be far less important, in the final determination of his guilt or innocence of murder, than what he believed at the time.

And the fact that Burger and her husband believed a robbery to be the likeliest source of the disturbance may well come to feature again.


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