Pistorius defense scores at hearing
By LYDIA POLGREEN
New York Times | February 21,2013
A woman holds a photo of Reeva Steenkamp as she leaves her funeral in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, on Tuesday.
PRETORIA, South Africa — What began Wednesday as a day for the prosecution to solidify what it had described as an irrefutable case of premeditated murder against Oscar Pistorius, the Paralympic champion, turned into a near-rout by the defense, which attacked the testimony of the state’s main witness, the chief police investigator.
It was the second full day of a hearing to decide whether Pistorius, the double amputee nicknamed Blade Runner who made Olympic history by running with able-bodied athletes in the 2012 Games in London, should be given bail as he awaits trial for shooting his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, early last Thursday. Pistorius claimed in an affidavit read in court Tuesday that he had mistaken Steenkamp for a burglar and had shot her out of fear.
But what was supposed to be merely a bail hearing took on the proportions of a full-blown trial, with sharp questions from the presiding magistrate, Desmond Nair, and a withering cross-examination that left the prosecution’s main witness, Detective Hilton Botha, grasping for answers that did not contradict his earlier testimony.
At first, Botha’s testimony seemed to go well. He explained how preliminary ballistic evidence supported the prosecution’s assertion that Pistorius had been wearing prosthetic legs when he shot at the bathroom door, behind which hid Steenkamp. Pistorius claimed in his affidavit that he had hobbled over from his bedroom on his stumps, and felt extremely vulnerable to an intruder as a result.
As Botha described how bullets had pierced Steenkamp’s skull and shattered her arm and hip bones, Pistorius sobbed with his head in his hands.
“A defenseless woman, unarmed, was gunned down,” Botha said.
Using a schematic diagram of the bedroom, the prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, asked Botha to walk Nair through the crime scene. The detective explained that Steenkamp’s slippers and overnight bag were on the left side of the bed, next to the sliding balcony door that Pistorius claimed he got up in the middle of the night to close. He also said the holster of Pistorius’ 9 mm pistol was found under the left side of the bed, next to where Steenkamp would have been sleeping. That called into question Pistorius’ statement that he thought Steenkamp was still in bed when he heard the sound of a burglar, the detective said.
“If the girl was on the bed, that is where the holster was found,” Botha said.
Botha said investigators had found two boxes of testosterone along with syringes and needles in Pistorius’ bedroom.
Testosterone is a banned substance for most professional athletes, and is known to increase aggression in people who take supplements of it.
Asked by Nel what he would have done had he suspected that an intruder was in his bedroom, Botha replied, “I would get my girlfriend and try to get her out of the room.”
He said he had interviewed witnesses who said that they heard shouting in the house, and that the lights were on, contradicting Pistorius’ statement that it had been too dark to see anything in the bedroom.
A neighbor, he said, heard “two people talking loud at one another, it sounded like a fight,” between 2 and 3 a.m.
Other witnesses spoke about hearing two or three shots, then a woman’s scream, followed by more shots, Botha said.
He also described previous violent incidents involving Pistorius. He had threatened to assault a man in an altercation about a woman at a racetrack, Botha said. He told another man that he would “break his legs,” Botha testified.
Botha also testified that Pistorius had foreign bank accounts and a house in Italy, which made him a flight risk.
“I believe he knew that she was in the bathroom,” Botha said. “And that he shot four shots through the door.”
Barry Roux, a lawyer for Pistorius, cross-examined Botha, seeking to poke holes in his account.
The substance found, Roux said, was not testosterone at all but a herbal supplement called testocomposutim coenzyme, which is used by many athletes and not banned by anti-doping agencies. Asked if the substance had been tested, Botha said tests had not yet been completed.
“I didn’t read the whole name” on the container, Botha admitted.
He acknowledged that the witness who claimed to have heard the two arguing had lived almost 2,000 feet away, possibly out of earshot. Under questioning by the prosecutor, he later revised the estimate to 1,000 feet.
Botha also acknowledged that there were no signs that Steenkamp had defended herself against an assailant, and that the police had no evidence that the couple’s relationship was anything but loving.
Roux accused the prosecution of selectively taking “every piece of evidence and try to extract the most possibly negative connotation and present it to the court.”
Botha was forced to admit that the police forensic team had missed a shell casing that the defense lawyers later found in the toilet bowl, and that he had entered the crime scene without covering his shoes because the police had run out of shoe covers.
Eventually, Botha conceded that he could not rule out Pistorius’ version of events based on the existing evidence.
Nair seemed skeptical that Pistorius was a flight risk.
“Do you subjectively believe that he would take the option, being who he is, using prostheses to get around, familiar as he is, to flee South Africa if he were granted bail?” Nair asked Botha.
“Yes,” he replied.
The court was adjourned, and final arguments in the bail hearing are to be heard Thursday morning.