The prosecution case against athletics star Oscar Pistorius suffered a blow on Wednesday as South African police admitted a series of blunders in their investigation. Sitting in the dock, Pistorius looked more calm and composed than at any point in his bail hearing so far, while the smiles on his family’s faces suggested that they felt momentum was shifting his way.
The double-amputee athlete, known as the Blade Runner, has admitted shooting dead his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, at his home on 14 February, but claims he mistook her for an intruder. He faces a charge of premeditated murder. The lead protagonist in another day of drama at Pretoria magistrates court was police detective Hilton Botha, whose arguments from the witness stand crumbled under cross-examination by the defence.
Botha initially asserted that he had found two boxes of “steroids” in Pistorius’s bedroom, hastily changing this to “two boxes of testosterone, needles and injections”. Later, questioned by advocate Barry Roux for the defence, Botha had to admit he could not be certain of the contents. Roux said it was a “herbal remedy” called testo-composutim co-enzyme used by many athletes, insisting: “It is not a steroid and it is not a banned substance.” Botha also told the court one of his witnesses had heard a fight, “two people talking loudly at each other”, between 2 and 3am on 14 February. But, pressured by Roux, he conceded that the witness had not identified the voices as belonging to Pistorius and Steenkamp and lived some 600 metres away. There was a collective murmur from Pistorius’s family. Botha later changed his estimate to 300 metres when questioned by the prosecution.
Botha acknowledged that Pistorius’s legal team had found a spent bullet cartridge in the toilet bowl that his officers did not. He also confronted Botha, saying: “You were in the house walking with unprotected shoes. That should not happen.” Botha conceded that it should not.
Botha said police found two iPhones in the bathroom and two BlackBerrys in the bedroom, adding that none had been used to phone for help. But Roux claimed the defence team had another phone in its possession that the police had failed to request. “Why did you not come to us and ask for Pistorius’s cellphone number?” he asked. Roux also took him to task for failing to check Pistorius’s claim that he phoned the Netcare hospital at 3.20am.
Botha said ammunition for a .38-calibre weapon had been found at the house but Pistorius did not hold a licence for it. “Did you take steps to find out who the owner of the ammunition was?” Roux demanded. Botha replied: “No, I didn’t.” Roux said a postmortem showed that Steenkamp’s bladder was empty. He said that was consistent with her getting up at 3am to go to the toilet. Botha could not disagree.
Wilting under pressure, Botha conceded that he had initially said there would be “no problem” with Pistorius receiving bail but changed his mind after talking to forensics about “how it went down”. Yet asked repeatedly by Roux if he found anything at the scene inconsistent with the version of events presented by Pistorius in court on Tuesday, Botha confessed that he had not. Police “take every piece of evidence and try to extract the most possibly negative connotation and present it to the court”, Roux said.
The hammering continued at the end of his testimony, when magistrate Desmond Nair noted that Botha was opposed to Pistorius receiving bail on the grounds that he was a “flight risk”. Nair said the accused was an international Paralympic athlete who uses protheses on both legs and whose face is internationally recognised.
“You believe he would take the option, on protheses as he is, known as he is, to flee South Africa if he was granted bail?” Nair asked. Botha, who has 24 years’ experience as a police officer and 16 as a detective, replied: “It’s possible.” That was met by an outburst of laughter in court, where the mood has mostly been tense and sombre.
Earlier, as Pistorius wept in the dock, the prosecution attempted to shore up its argument that the couple had a shouting match, that Steenkamp fled and locked herself into the toilet and that Pistorius fired four shots through the door, hitting her with three bullets. “I believe that he knew that Reeva was in the bathroom and he shot four shots through the door,” said Botha, adding that the angle at which the rounds were fired suggested they were aimed deliberately at somebody on the toilet.
One point of dispute is whether Pistorius was wearing his prosthetic legs when he shot through the bathroom door. In his statement on Tuesday, the athlete said he was on his stumps and feeling vulnerable when he opened fire. But the prosecution has claimed the killing was premeditated because Pistorius took time to put on his prosthetic legs first. Botha supported this view, saying the trajectory of the bullets showed the gun was fired from a height. “It seems to me it was fired down,” he said.
Prosecutor Gerrie Nel projected a plan of the bedroom and bathroom on to a white screen in the court and argued Pistorius had to walk past his bed to get to the bathroom and could not have done so without realising Steenkamp was not in the bed. “There’s no other way of getting there,” Nel said. Botha said the holster for the 9mm pistol was found under the side of the bed on which Steenkamp slept, also implying it would have been impossible for Pistorius to get the gun without realising that Steenkamp was not in the bed and could have been the person in the bathroom. Pistorius has claimed that the bedroom was pitch dark.
Botha said Steenkamp was shot in the head over her right ear and in her right elbow and hip, with both joints broken by the impacts. The shots were fired from 1.5 metres, he added, and police found three spent cartridges in the bathroom and one in the hallway connecting the bathroom to the bedroom. Officers found the victim downstairs covered in towels and wearing white shorts and a black top. The detective said that all Pistorius would say after the shooting was “he thought it was a burglar”.
As the day wore on, Pistorius’s brother Carl moved to the front desks and sat beside the defence team. At one point he turned to Pistorius and smiled. Carl said later: “I feel like the court proceedings went well today. We trust that everyone has more clarity about this tragic incident.” Kenny Oldwage, Pistorius’s lawyer, added: “We’re very pleased with today.”
The hearing was adjourned to Thursday morning when a decision over bail might be made.