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Oscar Pistorius trial begins with not guilty plea

June Steenkamp, right, the mother of Reeva Steenkamp, watched Oscar Pistorius  as he arrived for his trial Monday.

Themba Hadebe/AP

June Steenkamp, right, the mother of Reeva Steenkamp, watched Oscar Pistorius as he arrived for his trial Monday.

PRETORIA, South Africa — The murder trial of Oscar Pistorius opened Monday in South Africa with testimony from a neighbor who described the sound of what she said were four gunshots and recalled the ‘‘blood-curdling screams’’ of a woman who prosecutors say was the girlfriend slain by the onetime star athlete in his home.

‘‘It’s the most helpless feeling I’ve ever had in my life,’’ university lecturer Michelle Burger said of listening to the screams. ‘‘I knew something terrible was happening in that house.’’

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Pistorius, the 27-year-old double-amputee runner, shot Reeva Steenkamp in the predawn hours of Valentine’s Day last year.

Pistorius has pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and three other counts relating to shooting guns in public in unrelated incidents and illegal possession of ammunition.

Prosecutors allege that Pistorius, who has been free on bail, shot Steenkamp after an argument. He has said he killed her after mistaking her for a nighttime intruder in his home, shooting her through the closed door of the toilet cubicle in his bathroom. Steenkamp, 29, was hit three times — in the head, elbow, and hip area; a fourth bullet did not hit her.

Early testimony focused on whether the screams that Burger said she heard were those of a terrified woman about to be shot to death, as prosecutors allege, or were instead Pistorius’s desperate shrieks for help after a fatal mistake, as his defense lawyers contend.

Burger, who lives about 200 yards from Pistorius’s house, said she then heard four gunshots, with a gap between the first shot and the rest, and more screaming.

‘‘I heard her voice during the shots,’’ she said. ‘‘Shortly after the shots was the last time I heard that woman.’’

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