PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — Oscar Pistorius began testifying at his murder trial Monday by apologizing to the family of the girlfriend he shot dead last year, saying as he held back sobs that he was trying to protect Reeva Steenkamp when he fired four times through a toilet cubicle door.
The double-amputee athlete also said he has had nightmares regularly since the shooting, which he claims was accidental, and has been taking antidepressant medication for over a year.
Pistorius spoke at length about his fear of crime, providing a backdrop for the defense's argument that the disabled runner mistook his girlfriend for an intruder on the other side of the door in his bathroom. Prosecutors charge he killed Steenkamp intentionally after a loud argument heard by neighbors.
A glance at parts of Pistorius' testimony, which is set to continue Tuesday:
APOLOGY TO STEENKAMP FAMILY
Pistorius asked the judge for permission to make a statement before he began answering questions and apologized to Steenkamp's family for killing her. Standing with his hands crossed in front of him and stifling sobs, Pistorius repeated his claim that he killed Steenkamp accidentally, thinking she was a dangerous intruder when he fired through the door.
"I was simply trying to protect Reeva. I can promise that when she went to bed that night she felt loved," Pistorius said as June Steenkamp, the mother of his dead girlfriend, stared straight at him in the courtroom.
Pistorius said he had been traumatized by the shooting, has nightmares and sometimes wakes up to the "smell of blood." He said he has been taking antidepressant drugs since he shot Steenkamp in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine's Day last year.
"I'm scared to sleep," he said and described an incident a few months ago when he woke "in a panic" and went to hide in a closet. He phoned his sister, who was staying in the same house, to come and sit with him, he said.
FEAR OF CRIME
Much of the testimony Pistorius gave Monday dealt with previous incidences of crime that he said had affected him and his family, with his defense lawyers trying to show that he acted the way he did on the night he killed Steenkamp because he feared for his life.
Pistorius said his family home was the target of break-ins when he was young and his late mother slept with a gun in a "padded bag" under a pillow on her bed. His father, Henke, had been carjacked twice, he said, and he had also been followed by unidentified people while driving. Pistorius said he was aware of crime at the gated community where he lived and killed Steenkamp, and bought dogs to act as watchdogs. He was assaulted at a social function the year before the shooting, he said.
The prosecution has said that despite Pistorius' claims of being affected by crime he has never made a report to police.
VULNERABLE WITHOUT PROSTHETICS
Pistorius did not talk directly about his shooting of Steenkamp on the first day of his testimony, but did say he felt vulnerable when he wasn't wearing his prosthetics, as was the case when he killed Steenkamp.
"My dog could knock me over without my prosthetic legs on," he said, adding he viewed his prostheses as an "extension" of his body. His defense team has argued that because Pistorius did not have his prosthetic legs on when he mistook Steenkamp for an intruder, it made him feel more vulnerable to an attack.
Defense lawyer Barry Roux took Pistorius through much of his life, where he described the hardships caused by his disability, the way his mother Sheila inspired him to not view it as a disadvantage and his grief when she died unexpectedly when he was a teenager.
Pistorius also talked about his athletics career, the sacrifices he made to succeed, his charity work, how religion was important to him and how Steenkamp shared his beliefs.
Pistorius' accounts contrasted dramatically with the picture painted by prosecutors of a reckless, angry man who was obsessed with guns and who cheated twice on a former girlfriend. Chief prosecutor Gerrie Nel will have the opportunity to cross-examine Pistorius during his testimony.
Gerald Imray is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP