Murder trial: Friend testifies Oscar Pistorius fired guns in public
PRETORIA, South Africa — Oscar Pistorius fired guns in public in the months before he killed his girlfriend — once out of a car sunroof on a road and once in a crowded restaurant, a onetime friend said at the athlete’s murder trial Tuesday, drawing an aggressive effort from the chief defense lawyer to pick holes in his testimony.
The account by Darren Fresco portrayed Pistorius as a reckless hothead infatuated with firearms and seemingly drifting down a precarious path before he fatally shot Reeva Steenkamp through a closed toilet door at his home before dawn on Feb. 14, 2013.
Fresco’s description of how Pistorius once berated a police officer fit the prosecution’s attempts to cast the double-amputee athlete as prone to flashes of anger and blinded by an inflated sense of entitlement at a time when his public image was that of a clean-cut poster boy for overcoming adversity.
"I said to him, are you (expletive) mad?" Fresco testified after, he said, Pistorius fired his gun out of the sunroof of the car later on the same day that he had the dispute with the police officer. "He just laughed."
At the same time, the testimony was coming from a man whose own actions were under scrutiny. Judge Thokozile Masipa cautioned Fresco, who was also a friend of Steenkamp, that some questions could incriminate him for offenses including discharge of a firearm in a built-up area, negligent damage to property and reckless endangerment. She said he would not be prosecuted if he answered the questions truthfully.
Pistorius, 27, denies shooting the gun in the car, although now two witnesses say that he did. The athlete is on trial for murder in the killing of Steenkamp, and also faces two firearm charges for shooting in public and a third firearm charge for illegal possession of ammunition.
Pistorius says he shot Steenkamp by mistake, thinking she was a dangerous intruder. The prosecution says he killed her after an argument.
The athlete’s demeanor in court Tuesday was drastically different from the previous day, when he needed a vomit bucket as he heard a pathologist give graphic details of the injuries he inflicted on his girlfriend when he shot her multiple times.
This time, Pistorius mostly sat with his hands in his lap and often made notes.
Fresco testified that Pistorius’ altercation with a police officer happened in late 2012, when their car was pulled over by traffic police for the second time that day. He said Pistorius was furious with an officer for handling his gun, which he had left on the passenger seat.
"`You can’t just touch another man’s gun,’" Pistorius said to the officer, according to Fresco. "He started telling the officer: `Now your fingerprints are all over my gun, so if something happens, you are then going to be liable for anything that had happened.’ He was furious about that. Someone else had touched his gun."
Fresco and a former Pistorius girlfriend have both testified that the Olympian shot his gun out of the car sunroof later that day. But their stories do not match in parts, a fact highlighted by defense lawyer Barry Roux.
Fresco, who said he was driving the car, testified that Pistorius fired without warning sometime after visiting an unidentified person’s house. Samantha Taylor, who was dating the athlete at the time and was in the car, has testified that it happened soon after the altercation with police and after Pistorius and Fresco discussed finding a traffic light to shoot at.
Roux also questioned Fresco about an incident at a packed Johannesburg restaurant in the posh Melrose Arch district in early 2013 — about a month before Steenkamp’s death — when he said he handed his gun under the table to Pistorius and it fired. According to Fresco, Pistorius said there was too much "media hype" around him and asked Fresco to take the blame for the shooting, which he did.
Fresco said he had warned Pistorius that the gun was "one-up," meaning it had a bullet in the chamber.
"I knew that he had a big love for weapons," Fresco testified. "My assumption was that he had competency."
Roux asked Fresco when exactly he had warned Pistorius that there was a magazine in the gun and a bullet in the chamber, and when Pistorius had asked him to take the rap. The friend couldn’t pinpoint the precise times.
"Will you agree, Mr. Fresco, you have uncertainty … about what specifically happened and what was said?" Roux asked.
Roux sought to undermine Fresco’s character, questioning why he crumpled up a speeding ticket and threw it on the floor of the car after he and Pistorius were stopped by the police. Fresco also said he’d been following some previous testimony in the case on Twitter, which witnesses should not do.
If convicted on the murder charge, Pistorius could be sent to prison for at least 25 years before the chance of parole, the minimum time someone must serve if given a life sentence in South Africa. The judge will ultimately deliver the verdict and decide on any sentence. South Africa has no trial by jury.
Pistorius was born without fibula bones because of a congenital defect, and his legs were amputated when he was 11 months old. He ran on carbon-fiber blades and is a multiple Paralympic medalist. He also competed at the London Olympics but didn’t win a medal.