TODAY   |  April 07, 2014

Pistorius: ‘I was simply trying to protect Reeva’

As Oscar Pistorius testifies at his murder trial, TODAY is there live, as he delivers an emotional apology on the stand. NBC’s national investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen reports.

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>>> breaking developments as well in south africa at the murder trial of oscar pistorius . he took the stand in his own defense today and immediately issued an emotional apology to reeva steenkamp's family. jeff rossen is at the courthouse this morning. jeff, good morning.

>> reporter: hey, savannah, good morning to you. this surprised everybody when he got up there and began everything by saying "i'm sorry" and going into a tearful explanation. no experts, no neighbors, just pistorius . all alone trying to convince the judge this was self-defense. an honest mistake when he shot and killed his girlfriend reeva steenkamp. this morning, for the first time, oscar pistorius in his own words. as he walked to the witness box today, the courtroom silent, oscar pistorius started his testimony with a tearful apology to reeva steenkamp's family, the girlfriend he shot and killed in his bathroom.

>> i'd like to apologize. 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. i've tried to put my words on paper many, many times to write to you, but no words would ever suffice.

>> reporter: reeva's family looking on just feet away. pistorius chose to testify off camera, audio only, telling the court he's on anti-depressants.

>> i'm scared to sleep. for several reasons. but i have terrible nightmares about things that happened that night, i wake up and i smell -- can smell -- can smell blood and i wake up to being terrified. i wake up just in a complete state of terror. to the point that i'd rather not sleep.

>> reporter: pistorius delved into his disability, how he doesn't have legs.

>> it's a difficulty when i don't have legs on. i don't have balance. very limited mobility.

>> reporter: pistorius told the court that when he thinks about the shooting that night and the death of reeva, he has panic attacks and depends on his family for help.

>> obviously, if i want to handle a firearm, i've got a security guard that stands outside of my front door at night. but i wake up terrified. for some reason i can't calm myself down. my sister comes and sits by me a while, which she did.

>> reporter: that woman is amy pistorius , oscar's sister. he's spending a lot of time on the stand right now talking about his disability, his childhood, how he has mobility issues when he isn't wearing his prosthetic legs. and this all goes right to the heart of the defense's case, savannah, that he is more vulnerable than people like you and me who have legs, more scared of intruders because he can't move around that fast trying to explain why he shot through the bathroom door that day.

>> jeff rossen at the courthouse.