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Tue Oct 21 05:43:45 SAST 2014

Pistorius trial turns to restaurant shooting

Sapa | 05 March, 2014 16:22
Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius sits in the dock on the third day of his trial for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria.
Image by: POOL / REUTERS

Day three of the Oscar Pistorius trial saw testimony that he passed the blame when a gun went off in his hand in a packed restaurant, a month before he shot dead Reeva Steenkamp.

The incident informs count two of the charges faced by the paralympian sprinter accused of murdering his girlfriend -- discharging a firearm in a public place.

But the State also appears to be using the testimony to portray Pistorius as a man reluctant to be held to account for his actions.

On Wednesday morning, prosecutor Gerrie Nel called to the stand professional boxer Kevin Lerena who testified that a gun was passed around while he had lunch with Pistorius and two other men at Tasha's restaurant in Melrose Arch in January last year.

"I don't know for what reason, but a gun was passed under the table," Lerena said.

He told the High Court in Pretoria the gun went off in Pistorius's hand and he apologised profusely, then promptly asked his friend, Darren Fresco, to take responsibility to spare him 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 and ignored the incident until he was dragged into a media storm a few weeks later when Pistorius killed Steenkamp.

He received more than a 100 calls from reporters covering the Valentine's Day shooting which could see Pistorius jailed for life.

"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 shouldered the blame for the shot that blasted a hole in the restaurant floor.

Jason Loupis said patrons 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 confirmed that Fresco took the blame, and drew laughs when she said she "hit him over the head" for not showing more care with a firearm.

The restaurant shot was emphasised by Nel even during Pistorius's bail hearing last year.

"It's always me. Please protect me," Nel said of the athlete nicknamed "Blade Runner" at the time.

"There's now a person dead."

Before Lerena took the stand, the case had been dominated by dramatic testimony from Pistorius's neighbours and attempts by his counsel, Barry Roux, to question their credibility.

Charl Johnson and his wife Michelle Burger have both told the court that they heard a woman's petrified cries for help, followed by gun fire, on the night Pistorius shot Steenkamp in his townhouse less than 200 metres from where they live.

On Wednesday morning, Roux charged that the couple had tailored their dramatic testimony to match each other's and to compromise his famous client.

It was uncanny, he suggested, that on the stand both had spoken of "screams fading" when these words did not appear in their written statements to investigating officer Captain Mike van Aardt.

"You have not favoured the court with a strong, independent version," Roux told Johnson.

"This court really is entitled... that witnesses come to court not contaminated. Maybe you and your wife should have stood together in the witness box."

Judge Thokozile Masipa intervened and asked Roux: "Aren't you going a bit far?"

Roux conceded and dropped that line of questioning.

Roux went on to suggest that, like his wife, Johnson had confused the sound of a cricket bat hitting wood for gunshots.

"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 on the night Steenkamp died he used a cricket bat to break down a locked toilet door in his house after firing four shots into it because he believed an intruder was hiding inside.

Johnson conceded on Tuesday 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.

On Wednesday morning, Johnson revealed that he had received a number of distressing messages after his cellphone number was read out in court on Tuesday.

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.

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Tue Oct 21 05:43:45 SAST 2014 ::