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Pistorius weeps in court as murder trial set for March 2014

Paralympic gold medallist Oscar Pistorius (foreground, 3rd L) arrives at the Pretoria Magistrates court August 19, 2013. REUTERS/Mujahid Saf
Paralympic gold medallist Oscar Pistorius (foreground, 3rd L) arrives at the Pretoria Magistrates court August 19, 2013. REUTERS/Mujahid Saf

By Peroshni Govender

PRETORIA (Reuters) - South African Olympic and Paralympic star Oscar Pistorius, who is accused of murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, prayed and wiped away tears at a court hearing on Monday which set a March 3, 2014 start date for his trial.

The trial was moved to a high court and is scheduled to run until March 23. If convicted of murder, he could face up to life in prison.

Double-amputee Pistorius, 26, known as "Blade Runner" for the prostheses he wears in competition, bowed his head and held his hands in prayer with his brother Carl and sister Aimee before the brief hearing in a Pretoria court.

Detailed charges were presented in an indictment outlining the prosecution's case of premeditated murder against Pistorius, who has admitted to shooting Steenkamp through a bathroom door at his Pretoria home on February 14, Valentine's Day.

Pistorius, who was released on bail in February, claims he was acting in self-defense against what he thought was an intruder.

In the South African legal system, an indictment is used to move existing charges from a lower court to a high court.

Pistorius was also handed a lesser charge of violating provisions of the firearms control act for having 38 rounds of unlicensed ammunition at his home.

In South Africa, his triumph over adversity made him a hero for both blacks and whites, transcending the racial divides that persist 19 years after the end of apartheid.

His arrest and upcoming trial has riveted the nation and made headlines around the world. Endorsement deals for the likes of sports giant Nike have been either suspended or canceled.

Steenkamp, a fashion model and aspiring TV star, was shot in the head, arm and hip and died at the residence.

"Some of the state witnesses heard a woman scream, followed by moments of silence, then heard gunshots and then more screaming," the prosecution's charges summary reads.

"The deceased had locked herself into the toilet cubicle, situated adjacent to the main bedroom. The accused armed himself with his 9mm pistol and through the locked door, fired four shots at the deceased," it said.

"DEEPLY IN LOVE"

Monday's court hearing was held on the day that Steenkamp would have turned 30.

Prosecutors had portrayed Pistorius as a cold-blooded killer and said they were confident that their case, which will have to rely heavily on forensics and witnesses who said they heard shouting before the shots, would stand up to scrutiny.

The state plans to call more than 100 witnesses who include local sports stars and fashion models who knew the couple, as well as forensics investigators.

In an affidavit previously presented at court, Pistorius said he was "deeply in love" with Steenkamp and had no reason to kill her.

Pistorius said he reached for a pistol under his bed because he felt vulnerable without his prosthetic limbs.

Dressed in a black suit, he embraced his family after the 10-minute hearing and made his way through a media throng when he left the court.

Pistorius was born without fibulas and had both his legs amputated below the knees before he turned one-year-old. He was one of the most-celebrated athletes of the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics in London, progressing to the Olympic 400-metre semi-final and winning Paralympic gold over the same distance.

The athlete has mostly kept out of the public eye since he secured bail. He had one other court appearance, in June, which also lasted about 10 minutes.

Police stumbled in their initial investigation and were forced to replace their lead detective when it emerged he was facing attempted murder charges for shooting at a minibus.

The new investigator, appointed in late February, has handled some of the country's highest-profile cases.

(Reporting by Peroshni Govender; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Pravin Char)

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