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Pistorius trial turns to gunshot in restaurant

Emsie Ferreira

On the third day of the Oscar Pistorius trial, testimony was heard that he passed the blame when a gun went off in his hand in a busy restaurant.

Oscar Pistorius confers with his instructing attorney Brian Webber. (AFP)

Day three of the Oscar Pistorius trial saw testimony that he passed the blame when a gun went off in his hand in a packed restaurant, a month before he shot dead Reeva Steenkamp.

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel last year singled out the incident during Pistorius's bail hearing, suggesting at the time that it showed the man accused of murdering his girlfriend had a tendency to try to evade responsibility.

On Wednesday, Nel called to the stand professional boxer Kevin Lerena, who testified that a gun was passed around when he had lunch with Pistorius and two other men at Tasha's restaurant in Melrose Arch on January 11 last year.

"I don't know for what reason, but a gun was passed under the table," Lerena said.

He told the high court in Pretoria the gun went off in Pistorius's hand and he apologised profusely, then promptly asked his friend, Darren Fresco, to take responsibility to spare him negative publicity.

"Please Darren, just say it was you, I don't want any tension around me," Lerena quoted Pistorius as saying. He added: "Mr Fresco said when he spoke to the restaurant owners that the gun caught on his pants. He did take the rap [blame]."

Media storm
Lerena said either the bullet or shrapnel had grazed his toe, but said though he was shocked he did not need medical care and ignored the incident until he was dragged into a media storm a few weeks later when Pistorius killed Steenkamp

He received more than a 100 calls, many from foreign reporters covering the Valentine's Day shooting that could see Pistorius jailed for life for killing his girlfriend.

"I never spoke about it again. On the 16th [February 2013] I had over 100 phone calls from the media."

Nel next called the owners of the restaurant, husband and wife Jason and Maria Loupis, who confirmed that Fresco had shouldered the blame for the shot that blasted a hole in the restaurant floor.

Jason Loupis said patrons fell silent after the gun went off, and he walked to Pistorius's table and asked what had happened. "They all looked at me ... Mr Fresco then said 'sorry Jason, my gun fell out of my pants'," said Loupis.

Pistorius's lawyer Barry Roux put it to Loupis in cross-examination that Pistorius had settled the bill and offered to pay for the damage caused by the shot. But Loupis said he did not recall an offer from Pistorius for compensation.

Child
A child sat next to the table in a restaurant where Pistorius allegedly fired a shot from a handgun, the court also heard.

"There was a child in a chair next to them, between the two tables," Maria Loupis said during questioning from Nel.

Fresco had just passed the gun to him under the table. Lerena, Pistorius, Fresco and British sprinter Martyn Rooney were sitting together at the time. The bullet went into the floor under the table, grazing Lerena's toe.

Questioning of the Loupis couple by both Nel and Roux was over quickly.

"There's not a lot in dispute as far as this count is concerned," Nel said before he began questioning Maria Loupis.

The court adjourned for the day after the restaurant owners left the stand.

Grilling
Earlier in the day, Roux continued his grilling of one of Pistorius's neighbours, state witness Charl Johnson. 

Johnson and his wife Michelle Burger have both told the court that they heard a woman's petrified cries for help, followed by gun fire, on the night Pistorius shot Steenkamp in his townhouse less than 200m from where they live.

Roux charged that the couple had tailored their dramatic testimony to match each other's and to compromise his famous client. It was uncanny, he suggested, that on the stand both had spoken of "screams fading" when these words did not appear in their written statements to investigating officer Captain Mike van Aardt.

"You have not favoured the court with a strong, independent version," Roux told Johnson. "This court really is entitled ... that witnesses come to court not contaminated. Maybe you and your wife should have stood together in the witness box."

This drew a rebuke from Judge Thokozile Masipa, who asked Roux: "Aren't you going a bit far?"

Roux conceded, but went on to suggest that, like his wife, Johnson had confused the sound of a cricket bat hitting wood for gunshots. "I understand your believing that the noises you heard were gunshots," Roux said. "But there are problems with your belief ... A man's life is at stake."

Locked toilet door
Pistorius claims that on the night Steenkamp died he used a cricket bat to break down a locked toilet door in his house after firing four shots into it because he believed an intruder was hiding inside. 

He denies intentionally killing her, and on Monday pleaded not guilty to premeditated murder. He has also been charged with illegal possession of a firearm and ammunition, and recklessly discharging a firearm in public.

Johnson conceded on Tuesday that he and his wife had been loathe to brave the intense publicity surrounding the trial, but felt compelled to go to the police after Pistorius's bail hearing because his account of events was inconsistent with what they had heard.

On Wednesday morning, Johnson revealed that he had received a number of distressing messages after his cellphone number was read out in court on Tuesday. In one of these, the caller inquired why he was lying about what happened on the night that Pistorius shot Steenkamp.

So far, Lerena has been the only witness who allowed his face to be shown in live broadcasts of the trial being followed by a large television audience.

The trial continues. – Sapa

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