PRETORIA, South Africa -- South African Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius told Pretoria’s high court Monday that his religious faith had gotten him through the past year after he shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
“It’s definitely the thing that has got me through this past year,” Pistorius told the court. “My God’s my God of refuge.”
In an emotional day that saw Pistorius take the witness stand for the first time, his voice cracked repeatedly while talking about Steenkamp and his mother, who died when he was 15. He broke down in the morning, listening to testimony from a pathologist, Jan Botha, about Steenkamp’s injuries.
The athlete said he struggled with his faith after the death of his mother, the central pillar of his life, “but I always knew the Lord was part of my life.” In 2011 and 2012, he said, he returned to religion in earnest, and prayed hard to achieve his goals. In 2012, Pistorius made history as the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics, using carbon fiber blades to run.
Pistorius has pleaded not guilty to murder in the death of Steenkamp, saying he shot her after mistaking her for an intruder. He also pleaded not guilty to two charges of recklessly discharging a gun, and to one charge of unlicensed possession of ammunition. His attorney opened the defense case Monday with testimony from Botha and Pistorius.
Pistorius said Steenkamp was a “very strong Christian. She would pray for me at night, praying about everything, pray about my training. We’d pray before we eat.”
He told the court he loved Steenkamp. “I was bowled over by how much I fell for her,” he said, describing plans to sell his home and buy a house in Johannesburg so that he could be closer to her.
Pistorius' testimony offered a self-portrait of a young man who, deeply serious about his sport, lost touch with friends because of the grueling international competition circuit. He said he never drank during the five-month-long athletics season overseas.
The athlete described his fear of crime, testifying about incidents he and members of his family suffered. He said his father was twice hijacked and that his own home was the target of a burglary. His car was followed on several occasions, according to his testimony.
On one occasion, he said, a car on the highway sped past him and he saw the muzzle of a gun pointing at him and heard a gunshot.
“I just saw the muzzle flash and I could hear the bang coming from the vehicle,” he said, adding that he swerved off the highway and escaped.
He said he bought a bull terrier and pit bull terrier, hoping they’d make good security dogs. But they were docile, affectionate and slept heavily, even licking strangers’ hands, he said.
Pistorius also described two incidents in which he said he intervened to help other people being assaulted. Once, he said, he saw a woman in the parking lot of a shopping mall who was being assaulted by two men.
“I got out of the car and told them to back off and leave the woman alone,” he said.
He also said that in January last year, on his way back from a training session, he saw several men from a commuter taxi drag the driver of a Toyota from his car and start bashing the man’s head with bricks.
Pistorius said he was initially unsure what to do. He said he hesitated then drew his pistol, got out of his car and told the assailants to stop. The men fled in their vehicle, he said.
Earlier Monday, Pistorius made a halting, tearful apology to Steenkamp’s family.
The courtroom's family benches were packed with supporters of both the athlete and Steenkamp. Pistorius’ almost whispered apology was so quiet that Judge Thokozile Masipa had to tell him to speak up.
“I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to Mrs. and Mr. Steenkamp, to Reeva's family, to all those of you who knew her who are here today, to her family and friends,” he said.
“There’s not a moment and hasn’t been a moment since this tragedy happened that I haven’t thought about her family,” he said, adding it was the first thing that came into his mind when he woke up.
“I can’t imagine the pain and emptiness and sorrow that I’ve caused your family. I was simply trying to protect Reeva. I can promise you that when she went to bed that night she felt loved,” he said, his voice trembling.
He said he had often sat down to try to write a letter of apology to Steenkamp’s family but found there were no words adequate to convey what he wanted to say.
Pistorius told the court he had been on anti-depressants since soon after the shooting and that he also needed medication because he couldn’t sleep.
“I wake up and I smell blood and I wake up to be terrified. I wake up in a complete state of terror. I would rather not sleep,” he said.
The court was adjourned earlier than usual Monday at the request of Pistorius’ lawyer, Barry Roux, who said his client was exhausted. Pistorius told the court he had not been able to sleep Sunday night before his testimony.
“I’ve got a lot of things going through my mind,” he said. “I’m just very tired at the moment.”
Judge Masipa said Pistorius did look exhausted and adjourned the court. As those in the courtroom rose, Pistorius broke down and wept. Members of the athlete’s family hugged him and comforted him in the witness box.
Pistorius did not speak about how he shot Steenkamp during his first day of testimony but is likely to do so Tuesday when the trial resumes.