Oscar’s character on trial
Prosecutors trying to convict Oscar Pistorius of murder on Wednesday turned their attention to an unrelated accident with a loaded gun for which he passed blame to a friend.
Oscar Pistorius is seen in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, South Africa on Wednesday, 5 March 2014. The Double amputee and Paralympian is appearing in connection with the murder of model Reeva Steenkamp on February 14, 2013. Picture: Alon Skuy/Times Media Group/ Pool
Prosecutor Gerrie Nel called professional boxer Kevin Lerena to the stand to tell the High Court in Pretoria how Pistorius set off a friend’s firearm in a packed restaurant.
This happened in Melrose Arch, Johannesburg, a month before the athlete shot dead his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.
“I don’t know for what reason, but a gun was passed under the table,” Lerena calmly told the court.
He said one of the men at the table, Darren Fresco, warned Pistorius that there was a bullet in the gun’s chamber. Subsequently, it went off in Pistorius’s hand and he apologised profusely, then asked Fresco to shoulder the blame because he did not want 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].”
Lerena said either the bullet or shrapnel had grazed his toe, but said though he was shocked he did not need medical care.
He ignored the episode until he was dragged into a media storm a few weeks later, when Steenkamp’s death hit the headlines.
“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 taken responsibility for the shot that blasted a hole in the floor.
Jason Loupis said patrons at Tasha’s 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.
His wife added that she had scolded Fresco and “hit him over the head” for not showing more care with a firearm.
“There was a child in a chair next to them, between the two tables,” Maria Loupis added during further questioning from Nel.
Pistorius on Monday pleaded not guilty to premeditated murder.
He contends that he mistook Steenkamp for an intruder when he fired four shots through a locked toilet door in his home in the early hours of Valentine’s Day last year, fatally injuring the blond model.
While the first two days of the trial were taken up by State witnesses challenging his version of events, the state on Wednesday appeared to be taking aim at his character by calling witnesses to describe the accident in the restaurant.
Nel used it during Pistorius’s bail hearing last year to infer that the double amputee who become a paralympian sprinter was a self-centred man who did not take responsibility for his actions.
“It’s always me. Please protect me,” Nel said at that time.
Before Lerena took the stand, Pistorius’s lawyer Barry Roux tried to cast doubt on the credibility of neighbours who have told the court they were woken by a woman’s cries for help on the night Steenkamp died.
Charl Johnson and his wife Michelle Burger have both testified that the screams were followed by gunshots.
On Wednesday morning, Roux told the court the couple had tailored their dramatic testimony to match each other’s and that they had mistaken the sound of a cricket bat hitting a door for gunshots.
It was uncanny, he suggested, that on the stand both had spoken of a woman’s “screams fading” when these words did not appear in their written statements to investigating officer Captain Mike van Aardt.
They were, he said, corroborating their versions to prejudice Pistorius.
“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.”
Pistorius claims that he used a cricket bat to break down the door at which he had fired his gun.
On Tuesday, Johnson conceded 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.
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.