PRETORIA, South Africa — Prosecutors on Wednesday unveiled what seemed damning testimony against Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, who is accused of murdering his girlfriend. But as the day wore on, the defense savaged the state’s case, portraying the investigation as bumbling and shoddy.
Laying out what is likely to be the basis of their case, prosecutors said at Pistorius’ bail hearing that a witness heard what sounded like a quarrel shortly before model Reeva Steenkamp was fatally shot the night of Feb. 13. Another neighbor heard a shot, a woman’s scream, then more gunshots, they said.
The police investigator in the case, Hilton Botha, said Pistorius didn’t call an ambulance after the shooting. The athlete had a history of threatening people, he told the court, adding that boxes of what the officer first identified as steroids but later called testosterone were found in Pistorius’ home.
“I believe that he knew that Reeva was in the bathroom and he shot four shots through the door and killed her,” Botha told the court. Pistorius stood with his back to two sinks and fired from about 9 feet into the enclosed toilet, the prosecution said.
But after defense attorney Barry Roux succeeded in raising questions about the evidence, Pistorius’ chances of getting bail appeared to improve. The athlete says he shot Steenkamp by mistake, convinced she was a burglar.
South Africans have been riveted by the twists and turns in the evidence, conveyed by journalists in minute-by-minute tweets as the case unfolds in court. With the major contentions of both sides tested, the bail hearing, which is expected to conclude Thursday, seemed more like a mini-trial.
Under cross-examination, Botha acknowledged that he had found nothing at the scene inconsistent with Pistorius’ account of mistaking Steenkamp for a burglar. He also said Steenkamp had no defensive wounds, nor were there any signs of a struggle or an assault.
Botha acknowledged that the woman who said she’d heard what sounded like quarreling lived about 600 yards from Pistorius’ home. The defendant’s large contingent of supporters in court gasped and tittered at this revelation. Botha later modified that to 300 yards, muttering that he would like to measure the distance.
Roux attacked the testimony that Pistorius, a double amputee who competed in last year’s London Olympic Games, had boxes of testosterone and needles in his home. He told the court that the substance was an herbal remedy.
“It’s not a steroid and it’s not a banned substance,” Roux said loudly, leading Botha to admit that he had not read the label fully.
The claim that Pistorius hadn’t phoned an ambulance after shooting Steenkamp relied on checks of several phones found in the bathroom. But Roux said police failed to check with the medical service provider, Netcare. In fact, he said, Pistorius called Netcare at 3:20 a.m., minutes after the shooting, from another phone.
Roux said Pistorius also called a security guard but forgot to hang up after the call. The security guard heard Pistorius crying over the line, he said.
The neighbor who had reported hearing a woman screaming after the first gunshot also claimed to have heard more shots than were fired, Botha agreed. That neighbor also said the lights were on in the house; Pistorius has said it was pitch-dark.
According to Roux, the postmortem examination showed that Steenkamp’s bladder was empty, suggesting she had gotten up to use the toilet. That was consistent with Pistorius’ account that he heard noises in the bathroom after he went to the balcony to get a fan, he said.
The defense attorney accused the police investigator of discounting any evidence that supported the athlete’s version of events. He hammered the policeman’s contention that Pistorius could be a flight risk because he had overseas bank accounts and a house in Italy. Roux said there was no active cash account nor any overseas house.
Botha also admitted that he had entered the house without wearing the shoe protectors required at crime scenes, potentially disturbing evidence.
He acknowledged that police had failed to find a bullet that was lodged in the bathroom door. Nor did police take any steps to find out who owned .38-caliber ammunition found in Pistorius’ safe. Roux said it belonged to Pistorius’ father.
Botha said the younger Pistorius fired a gun accidentally last month at a restaurant in upscale Melrose Arch and, fearing bad publicity, persuaded someone else to “take the rap.” The officer also said Pistorius threatened a witness after a quarrel last year at a race track.
At the end of Wednesday’s proceedings, Chief Magistrate Desmond Nair questioned Botha on whether an Olympic athlete whose face was so familiar would flee overseas when he had a chance to clear his name in court.
“It’s possible. That’s all I can say,” Botha responded.
The trial is not expected to begin for several months. If convicted of premeditated murder, Pistorius could face life in prison. South Africa does not impose the death penalty.
Los Angeles Times