PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA —
South African runner Oscar Pistorius took the stand in his own defense at his murder trial Monday and began by apologizing to the family of the woman he shot and killed.
"I would love to take this opportunity to apologize to to Mr. and Mrs. Steenkamp, to Reeva's family, to those of you who knew her and are here today," Pistorious said. "I'd like to apologize and say there's not a moment and there hasn't been a moment since this tragedy happened that I haven't thought about your family. I wake up every morning and you're the first people I think of, the first people I pray for. I can't imagine the pain and the sorrow and the emptiness that I've caused you and your family. I was simply trying to protect Reeva. I can promise that when she went to bed that night she felt loved."
Mr. and Mrs. Steenkamp are the grieving parents of law graduate and model Reeva Steenkamp, Pistorius' girlfriend of three months. The athlete is charged with murdering her at his Pretoria home in February 2013.
He says he mistook her for an intruder when he shot four times through a locked bathroom door. The prosecution says he meant to kill.
Since that night, the athlete says, he's suffered and has been prescribed antidepressants and sleeping pills.
June Steenkamp, mother of Reeva Steenkamp, looks on during the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius at the high court in Pretoria, April 7, 2014.
"I'm scared to sleep for several reasons," he said. "I have terrible nightmares about things that happened that night where I wake up and … I can smell the blood and I wake up to being terrified. If I hear a noise, I wake up, just, in a complete state of terror. It's to the point where I'd rather not sleep than fall asleep and wake up like that."
As he continued to speak, describing his early life and his mother's sudden death when he was 15, the athlete struggled to hold in his emotions.
He grew more confident describing his upbringing, even smiling wistfully when he told of his mother's insistence on treating her son, who was born without fibula bones, just like his able-bodied siblings.
He spoke of her encouragement as he tried sports in school, even though, he said, he wasn't good at most of them. He spoke of his mother's support when he was bullied at school. He talked about a catastrophic 2009 boating accident that made him re-evaluate his life.
In any other context, this would an inspirational tale of a young man who overcame a disability to reach the heights of success. Pistorius, after all, was the first double amputee to run in the Olympics, at the 2012 London Games.
But in this drab brown courtroom in Pretoria's High Court, observers say the tale serves a more strategic purpose: to paint Oscar Pistorius as a man who feels vulnerable, is chronically insecure and afraid of the threats posed to him by the world.
Pistorius spoke of the encounters with crime he and his family have endured. He said intruders once ransacked his father's entire house, destroying any belongings that weren't taken.
He said burglars stole a TV set from his mother's place, and that his father had been carjacked twice.
He said his own home was robbed in 2005, with the robbers taking a TV set and a laptop computer.
Defense lawyers will likely use these incidents to help explain why Pistorius, fearing another break-in, fired four shots into his bathroom door.