Oscar Pistorius murder trial

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel pauses during cross-examination of South African Olympian Oscar Pistorius during his murder trial in Pretoria. (Siphiwe Sibeko / Pool Photo / April 9, 2014)

PRETORIA, South Africa — South African athlete Oscar Pistorius rambled and at times contradicted himself under cross-examination Wednesday during his trial for the shooting death of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

"My memory is not very good at the moment," Pistorius said during testimony at Pretoria's High Court. "I'm under a lot of pressure sitting here. I'm defending for my life."

Pistorius, who has pleaded not guilty to murder and said he mistakenly shot Steenkamp at his house last year thinking she was an intruder, acknowledged that he was weighing every implication as he responded to questions from prosecutor Gerrie Nel.

"But Reeva doesn't have a life anymore, because of what you did," Nel said to Pistorius. "Please answer and don't think of the implications to you."

The prosecutor displayed a photograph of Steenkamp's bloodied head after she had been shot on Valentine's Day 2013, causing spectators in the public gallery to gasp. Pistorius, who faced cross-examination for the first time since beginning his testimony Monday, again broke into tears, forcing another of many adjournments because of his fragile emotional state.

During Pistorius' testimony, Nel bluntly asked him whether he knew what was meant by a "zombie stopper." The athlete initially denied any knowledge of the term, but the court saw a video in which Pistorius, who was at a shooting range, fired a handgun at a watermelon, which exploded. The athlete then said in the video, "It's not as soft as brains but," cursing, added, "it's like a zombie stopper," to raucous cheering around him.

Nel pressed Pistorius to look at the photograph of Steenkamp.

"You know that the same happened to Reeva's head. It exploded. Have a look," Nel said. "It's time that you look at it. Take responsibility for what you've done."

Pistorius wept and showed anger.

"I will not look at a picture where I'm tormented by what I saw and felt that night," he said. "As I picked Reeva up my fingers touched her head. I remember. I don't have to look at a picture. I was there."

Steenkamp's mother, June, had been warned that the photograph would be shown and wanted Pistorius to see it, according to prosecutors.

In another dramatic exchange, Pistorius, a double-amputee who used prosthetic devices to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics, acknowledged that people around the world used to look up to him as a sporting hero until he made a mistake.

"You made a mistake? You killed a person. You killed Reeva Steenkamp, that's what you did," Nel said. "You killed her. Won't you take responsibility for that?"

Nel also said there were contradictions between Pistorius' bail hearing affidavit and his court testimony. Pistorius blamed his defense lawyer, Barry Roux, for an error saying he went out onto the balcony, when he did not.

In response to questions from Roux this week, Pistorius had portrayed himself as a God-fearing good Samaritan who rescued a puppy, helped charities, intervened to help assault victims under attack and was "besotted" with Steenkamp.

Pistorius, 27, said that on the day of Steenkamp's death he heard a sound in a bathroom near his bedroom and thought someone was trying to get into his house. He fired four bullets through a door to a toilet enclosure, not realizing that the 29-year-old Steenkamp was in the room, he said.

Prosecutors contend that Pistorius, who some witnesses described as having a quick temper and acting recklessly with guns, intentionally killed Steenkamp.

Speaking on the Oscar Pistorius cable TV channel, former acting South African High Court Judge Chris Greenland said Pistorius had to be fully responsible for his bail affidavit. He also said that Pistorius' long-winded responses were not helping his case.

"Being evasive is one of the no-nos," Greenland said. "From a judicial point of view it's one of the characteristics that will earn you bad marks for a witness."

robyn.dixon@latimes.com