Olympian Oscar Pistorius breaks down in court, disputes he committed murder
PRETORIA, South Africa • Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius wept in court Friday as prosecutors said they'll pursue a charge of premeditated murder against him in the killing of his model girlfriend, meaning the man who once inspired the world could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Pistorius' family and London-based management issued a statement disputing the murder charge he now faces for the slaying of Reeva Steenkamp. The athlete himself initially appeared solemn and collected in his first court appearance, but later sobbed loud enough for his cries to be heard over the more than 100 spectators gathered for the hearing.
His tears even drew the attention of Chief Magistrate Desmond Nasir, who at one point simply said: "Take it easy."
The double-amputee athlete's arrest stunned South Africa, which awoke the morning of Valentine's Day to hear that Steenkamp had been shot to death at Pistorius' home in a gated community in an eastern suburb of South Africa's capital, Pretoria. Police said investigators recovered a 9 mm pistol from the home.
In Pretoria Magistrate's Court on Friday, throngs of photographers, videographers and journalists besieged the brick-walled Courtroom C, where Pistorius appeared. Nasir's first ruling in the matter focused on the press: He dismissed requests from a private television station and the state broadcaster to air the hearing live.
Nasir also ordered that no photographs be taken while court was in session. That left kneeling photographers less than a meter (three feet) from Pistorius to simply stare at a man some previously photographed sprinting on his famous carbon-fiber blades as he cried uncontrollably. Pistorius' brother, Carl, and his father, Henke, reached out at separate times to comfort him as he sat in the dock.
Prosecutor Gerrie Nel said in court he would pursue a charge of premeditated murder against Pistorius for allegedly killing Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model known for her vamping, bikini pictures in men's magazines and appearances in cosmetics commercials. Police have said Steenkamp is 30. The discrepancy has not been explained.
Police said Friday that investigators conducted an autopsy on Steenkamp's body. Lt. Col. Katlego Mogale said the results of the autopsy would not be published.
Pistorius entered no plea at the hearing and his family left quickly, without speaking to journalists who followed them outside. In a statement later Friday, his family and management questioned the criminal charge the 26-year-old athlete faces.
"The alleged murder is disputed in the strongest terms," the statement read, without elaborating.
The statement also said Pistorius wanted to "send his deepest sympathies to the family of Reeva."
"He would also like to express his thanks through us today for all the messages of support he has received but as stated our thoughts and prayers today should be for Reeva and her family regardless of the circumstances of this terrible, terrible tragedy," the statement read.
South Africa continues to question itself over what to think about the shooting, with local newspaper headlines veering from the lurid to "Blade gunner?" on Friday morning, playing on Pistorius' nickname given for his running blades. The nation of 50 million has one of the world's highest rates of shooting deaths, behind only Colombia. South Africa as whole recently recoiled at the brutal gang rape and attack that killed a 17-year-old girl and many wore black Friday to demonstrate against the high levels of violence against women in the country.
Others focused their attention on Pistorius, who is fascinated by fast cars, cage fighting and firearms. He crashed a speedboat in February 2009, breaking his nose, jaw and several ribs and damaging an eye socket. He later required 180 stitches to his face. Witnesses said he had been drinking, and officers found alcoholic beverages in the wreckage, though they did not do a blood test on Pistorius.
His love life, the fodder of gossip columns in the country, also saw turmoil. In November, Pistorius was involved in an altercation over a woman with a local coal mining millionaire, South African media reported.
Gianni Merlo, who co-authored the 2009 biography "Blade Runner" with Pistorius, told The Associated Press in a phone interview Friday from Italy that Pistorius once drove out in the middle of the night to see his first love after a fight. Pistorius crashed his car when he fell asleep behind the wheel, though Merlo said it showed his devotion.
However, he said Pistorius once threw a friend's girlfriend out of his house, prompting police to investigate and take him in for questioning.
"He explained that this was a kind of (plot) against him, planned against him," Merlo said.
At the defense's request, the chief magistrate delayed Pistorius' bail hearing until Tuesday and Wednesday. Prosecutors and defense lawyers agreed to keep Pistorius in a police holding cell, rather than transfer him to prison like most normal suspects. While Nasir acknowledged that could give them impression that the athlete was getting "preferential treatment," he agreed to it. Police have said they oppose Pistorius being freed on bail.
In saying they'll seek a premeditated murder charge against Pistorius, prosecutors likely are claiming they have evidence that the athlete planned the killing ahead of time, said William Booth, a prominent defense lawyer from Cape Town. The charge, which carries a sentence of life in prison, also makes it more difficult for Pistorius to successfully apply for bail, Booth said, though it could be a challenge to get a conviction.
"It's quite difficult to prove that in a situation where there isn't a witness," the defense lawyer said. "If I just plan it in my mind and I arrive at somebody's house and there's no witnesses and I shoot the person, it's really tough for the prosecution to show that planning."
On call-in radio shows and in private conversation Friday, some in South Africa compared Pistorius' case to that of O.J. Simpson, a former football star accused of the slayings of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. That case, drawing international media attention, saw Simpson acquitted by a jury in 1995. However, in South Africa, there is no jury system, leaving Pistorius fate largely to the judge who will oversee his possible trial.
Pistorius made history at the London Olympics last year when he became the first double-amputee track athlete to compete at any games. He didn't win a medal but did make the semifinals of the 400 meters and the final of the 4X400 relay, propelling the world's best-known Paralympian to the level of an international track star and one of the world's best-known sportsmen.
But police hinted at a troubled lifestyle away from public scrutiny for the runner Thursday when they said there had previously been domestic incidents at Pistorius' home.
AP Sports Writer Gerald Imray reported from Johannesburg. Associated Press writer Michelle Faul in Johannesburg contributed to this report.