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PRETORIA, South Africa – Prosecutors on Wednesday changed the focus of Oscar Pistorius' murder trial to the world-famous athlete's character and trustworthiness. In the Pretoria court they raised an incident when a gun was accidentally fired in a packed restaurant while being passed to Pistorius and, according to a witness' testimony, the Olympian asked a friend to take the blame.
The switch to one of the other three firearm-related counts Pistorius faces alongside the main charge of murder in his girlfriend's shooting death also came after defense lawyer Barry Roux cast doubts on two prosecution witnesses' recollection of events surrounding Reeva Steenkamp's killing.
THE RESTAURANT SHOT
The court heard that a friend decided to "take the rap" for Pistorius after the gun was shot by mistake under the table of a busy restaurant with a child nearby weeks before Steenkamp's shooting death.
South African boxer Kevin Lerena testified that Pistorius, who was being given the gun when it fired into the floor, said to the friend at the time: "Take the blame because this could be big."
The incident in a Johannesburg restaurant happened in mid-January last year, just a month before Pistorius shot Steenkamp at his home. The testimony that Pistorius asked the friend, Darren Fresco, to own up in his place was never seriously challenged by the athlete's defense and raises questions over whether he can be trusted to tell the truth.
The events between 3:16 a.m. and 3:19 a.m. on the night of Steenkamp's death could hold the key to the case.
Before prosecutors decided to move on to the restaurant gunshot, Pistorius lawyer Roux cast some doubt on the testimonies of two of the prosecution's witnesses by saying that he could show that at the time that they claim they heard gunshots, it was Pistorius bashing down the door in his bathroom with a cricket bat to get to a fatally wounded Steenkamp.
It's important because of the sequence of events. The witnesses say the screams happened before gunshots, hinting at a fight and a motive. Roux said he would show — aided by telephone records — that in those three minutes it was Pistorius screaming for help, bashing through the toilet door with the bat and then telephoning for help, and not Steenkamp screaming and Pistorius then shooting her.
WHAT WAS THAT?
As the court returned after a break, there was a cricket bat-shaped object wrapped in plastic on the desk near Pistorius' defense lawyers. It was the focus of speculation around the courtroom for a while before prosecution witness Charl Johnson was taken off the stand, the object was removed, and prosecutors moved on to the restaurant gunshot incident.
Was it the cricket bat? It seems the much-talked about bat might be brought out in court.
Prosecution witness Johnson began the third day of the trial by talking about how he had received a large number of messages on his cellphone after his number was read out during proceedings Tuesday.
One of the messages left for Johnson, he told the court, was someone in a voicemail saying: "Why are you lying in court? You know Oscar didn't kill Reeva. It's not cool."
The intense global interest in the case means the court has to be weary of witnesses for either side being harassed as they become known. An image of Johnson's wife, Michelle Burger, was shown on South African television while she was testifying on Tuesday when it should not have been.
A British newspaper reporter was ordered by the judge to stand and explain herself after her laptop made a piercing noise in court, interrupting the proceedings. Occasionally, cellphones have also rung or pinged with messages in the room. A frustrated judge, Thokozile Masipa, warned that the noisy laptop should be the "last time" there is an interruption.
Gerald Imray is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP