Pistorius Defense Rebuts Police Testimony at Bail Hearing

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PRETORIA, South Africa -- What began on 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 Mr. Pistorius, the double amputee nicknamed the 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, in the early morning hours last Thursday. Mr. Pistorius said in an affidavit read in court on Tuesday that he had mistaken Ms. Steenkamp for a burglar and had shot her out of fear.

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, Detective Botha's testimony seemed to go well. He explained how preliminary ballistic evidence supported the prosecution's assertion that Mr. Pistorius had been wearing prosthetic legs when he shot at the bathroom door, which Ms. Steenkamp hid behind. Mr. Pistorius said in his affidavit that he had hobbled over from his bed on his stumps, and had felt extremely vulnerable to an intruder as a result.

But when questioned by Barry Roux, Mr. Pistorius's lawyer, Detective Botha was forced to acknowledge sloppy police work, and he eventually conceded that he could not rule out Mr. Pistorius's version of events based on the existing evidence. Mr. Roux accused the prosecution of selectively taking "every piece of evidence" and trying "to extract the most possibly negative connotation and present it to the court."

As Detective Botha described how bullets had pierced Ms. Steenkamp's skull and shattered her arm and hip bones, Mr. Pistorius sobbed with his head in his hands.

"A defenseless woman, unarmed, was gunned down," Detective Botha said.

Using a schematic diagram of the bedroom, the prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, asked Detective Botha to walk Magistrate Nair through the crime scene. The detective explained that Ms. Steenkamp's slippers and overnight bag were on the left side of the bed, next to the sliding balcony door that Mr. Pistorius has said he got up in the middle of the night to close.

He also said the holster of Mr. Pistorius's 9-millimeter pistol was found under the left side of the bed, next to where Ms. Steenkamp would have been sleeping. That called into question Mr. Pistorius's statement that he thought Ms. 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," Detective Botha said. "I believe he knew that she was in the bathroom."

Detective Botha said investigators had found two boxes of testosterone, along with syringes and needles, in Mr. Pistorius's bedroom. Testosterone is a banned substance for most professional athletes, and is known to increase aggression in people who take it in supplement form.

However, Mr. Roux said the substance was not testosterone, but an herbal supplement that is used by many athletes and is not banned by antidoping agencies. Asked if the substance had been tested, Detective Botha said tests had not yet been completed.

"I didn't read the whole name" on the container, the detective admitted.

He said witnesses had told him that they heard shouting in the house, and that the lights were on, contradicting Mr. Pistorius's statement that it had been too dark to see anything in the bedroom. Other witnesses spoke about hearing two or three gunshots, then a woman's scream, followed by more shots, Detective Botha said.

One neighbor, he said, heard "two people talking loud at one another, it sounded like a fight," between 2 and 3 a.m. Under cross-examination, he acknowledged that the neighbor lived almost 2,000 feet from Mr. Pistorius's home in Pretoria and could have been out of earshot. Questioned later by the prosecutor, he revised the estimate to 1,000 feet.

Detective Botha was forced to admit that the police forensics 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.

He also described previous violent episodes involving Mr. Pistorius. He threatened to assault a man in an altercation about a woman at a racetrack, and told another man that he would "break his legs," the detective testified. But he also acknowledged that there were no signs that Ms. Steenkamp had defended herself against an assailant, and that the police had no evidence that the couple's relationship was anything but loving.

Detective Botha also testified that Mr. Pistorius had foreign bank accounts and a house in Italy, which made him a flight risk, but Magistrate Nair expressed skepticism.

"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?" Magistrate Nair asked Detective Botha.

"Yes," he replied.

Mr. Roux denied that Mr. Pistorius had any active foreign accounts or a house in Italy.

Final arguments in the bail hearing are to be heard Thursday morning.

Alan Cowell contributed reporting from London.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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