Oscar Pistorius stands in the dock at the Pretoria Magistrate's Court… (European Pressphoto Agency…)
PRETORIA, South Africa -- Prosecutors on Wednesday unveiled what seemed to be damning testimony against double-amputee Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, accused of murder in the death of his girlfriend: One witness, they said, heard noises that sounded like a quarrel the night of the shooting.
Prosecutors told a bail hearing here that a neighbor heard a shot, a woman scream, then more gunshots at Pistorius' house the night he shot model Reeva Steenkamp to death.
A police investigator on the case, Hilton Botha, said Pistorius didn’t phone an ambulance after the shooting. The athlete had a history of threatening people, he said, and a substance he first identified as steroids but then called testosterone was found in his room.
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But in a dramatic turnaround, defense attorney Barry Roux savaged the police case, presenting their work in the investigation as bumbling and shoddy.
By the end of the day, Pistorius’ hopes of getting bail appeared to have greatly improved. He claims he shot Steenkamp through a bathroom door, convinced she was a burglar.
South Africans, deeply divided over Pistorius’ guilt or innocence, have been enthralled by the stunning 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 seemed more like a mini-trial, though Pistorius didn’t take the witness stand.
Under cross-examination by the defense, Botha was forced to admit he found nothing at the scene inconsistent with Pistorius’ account that he shot Steenkamp after mistaking her for a burglar.
Botha admitted the woman who heard what sounded like quarreling at Pistorius’ house lived about 600 yards away. Pistorius’ large contingent of supporters in court gasped and tittered at this revelation. Botha later modified that to 300 yards.
Roux told the court that the substance found in Pistorius' home was merely a herbal remedy, not a banned substance, leading Botha to admit he had not read the label fully.
The police statement that Pistorius hadn’t phoned an ambulance after the shooting relied on checks made on several phones found in the bathroom. But it came out that police failed to call the medical service provider, Netcare, to check the story. In fact, Roux said, Pistorius called Netcare at 3.20 a.m., minutes after shooting Steenkamp, from another phone.
The neighbor who had reported hearing a woman screaming after the first gunshot had also claimed to have heard more shots than were fired, Botha agreed. That neighbor has also claimed the lights were on in the house, directly contradicting Pistorius’ claim that it was pitch dark.
Roux also hammered the prosecution’s view that Pistorius was a flight risk, which it based on Botha's statement that the defendant had overseas bank accounts and a house in Italy. Roux said there was no active cash account, nor any overseas house.
Botha also admitted to Roux that he entered the house without shoe protectors that regulations require investigators to wear at crime scenes, potentially disturbing evidence, because none were available.
At the end of Wednesday’s proceedings, Chief Magistrate Desmond Nair questioned Botha on whether he really believed an Olympic gold medalist whose face was so familiar would flee overseas when he had a chance to clear his name in court.
The hearing resumes Thursday, when a decision on bail may be handed down.
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