Neighbor: Pistorius 'torn apart'

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Monday, May 5, 2014

PRETORIA, South Africa -- A neighbor and friend of Oscar Pistorius testified Monday at the parathlete's murder trial that the runner was "torn apart" and desperately trying to save girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp minutes after fatally shooting her at his home last year.

Neighbor Johan Stander said he received a panicked phone call from Pistorius around 3:20 a.m. on Feb. 14, 2013 -- about two or three minutes after the shooting. Pistorius told him he had thought Steenkamp was an intruder and shot her, Stander testified, and Stander and his daughter Carice Viljoen went to Pistorius' house after the double-amputee runner pleaded with him to come help.

"I saw the truth there that morning. I saw it and I feel it," Stander testified, saying he believed that the shooting was accidental because of Pistorius' emotional state when they found him carrying a bloodied Steenkamp down the stairs at his villa. Pistorius was "really crying. He was in pain," Stander said.

"He was asking God to help him. He was torn apart, broken, desperate, pleading," said Stander, whose own voice shook at one point as he became emotional on the witness stand. "It's difficult really to describe."

Stander and his daughter were the fourth and fifth witnesses called by the defense as it attempted to recover from what appeared to be a shaky start and Pistorius' own testimony, which was subjected to fierce cross-examination by chief prosecutor Gerrie Nel. The pair testified as the trial moved into its seventh week after a two-week recess.

The defense was trying to reinforce its assertion that Pistorius killed Steenkamp in a tragic error of judgment. Pistorius, 27, says he mistook his 29-year-old girlfriend for an intruder and shot her through a closed toilet door, then tried to save her life.

Prosecutors maintain that Pistorius is lying about the perceived intruder and his story is designed to cover up that he killed the model intentionally in the midst of a heated nighttime argument. A multiple Paralympic champion and the first amputee to run at the Olympics, Pistorius would face 25 years to life in prison if convicted on a premeditated murder charge. He slumped forward at one point Monday with his head in his hands as details of what may have been Steenkamp's last moments alive were discussed.

Cross-examining Stander, Nel questioned whether he was a good friend of Pistorius and therefore trying to "assist" the defense. Stander said he had known Pistorius since 2009 and looked after his home and dogs when the athlete was away competing. Nel asked whether the friendship led him to back Pistorius' story. Stander said he also knew Steenkamp.

"I'm here to give the truth," Stander said. "And I think I've given the truth, what I saw that morning."

Stander had earlier recounted the telephone call from Pistorius.

"He said on the call, 'Johan, please, please, please come to my house. Please. I shot Reeva. I thought she was an intruder. Please come quick,'" Stander said.

Nel's manner in cross-examining both Stander and Viljoen was relatively subdued in contrast to his aggressive questioning during a five-day cross-examination of Pistorius and of two expert witnesses for the defense. The prosecution has focused on events before the killing -- and not Pistorius' demeanor afterward -- to try to show his intruder story is a fabrication, including that he never attempted to locate his girlfriend despite knowing she was awake before walking to the bathroom on his stumps and firing four times through the door with a 9 mm pistol. Steenkamp was hit in the hip, arm and head.

Viljoen testified that Pistorius begged her to help him get Steenkamp into a car so they could take her to a hospital. Viljoen said she urged Pistorius to "just put her down" so they could try to stop the bleeding. As Viljoen spoke, her voice broke and she became tearful. She took a sip of water, wiped her eyes and proceeded.

"I just saw blood everywhere," she said. While her father stepped outside to telephone an ambulance, Viljoen said, she went upstairs to fetch towels to stop the bleeding. Pistorius was pleading for Steenkamp to stay alive, she testified.

Viljoen said Pistorius was saying to Steenkamp: "Stay with me, my love, stay with me."

Monday's proceedings ended early because lead defense attorney Barry Roux said he had expected the two witnesses to take up the entire day, and there were no other defense witnesses at the courthouse.

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