Investigating officer Hilton Botha sits in the witness box during the Oscar… (Themba Hadebe / Associated…)
PRETORIA, South Africa -- In a bizarre twist to a closely watched court case, South African media Thursday reported that the lead police detective in charge of the Oscar Pistorius murder investigation is himself facing seven counts of attempted murder.
Hilton Botha, whose evidence crumbled under a fierce barrage of defense questions during Pistorius' bail hearing Wednesday, has suddenly taken on the appearance of an investigator no prosecution would want on its side.
Double-amputee Olympic runner Pistorius is accused of premeditated murder in the killing of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine's Day. He claims he shot her in a tragic mistake, believing her to be a burglar.
The Pistorius bail hearing, packed with media from around the globe crushing to get a spot in the small courtroom, has focused attention on the country's high rate of crime and domestic violence. But now attention is turning to its police force, often criticized for its embarrassing and sometimes sinister mistakes: muffing evidence, misplacing firearms and losing documents listing criminal charges, causing cases to be abandoned.
In the Botha case, he and three other police officers were allegedly drunk and traveling in a state vehicle when they attempted to stop a commuter minibus carrying seven passengers by opening fire at it.
Three of the officers were arrested, but prosecutors did not proceed with charges. It was not clear when the incident happened, and there were conflicting reports Thursday on whether the initial charges were brought in 2009 or 2011. However, the director of public prosecutions, or DPP, has since decided to reinstate the charges, South Africa's Eyewitness News reported Thursday.
South African media quoted police spokesman Neville Malila as saying that it was only on Wednesday -- as Botha was in court in Pretoria sweating under a stinging cross-examination by Pistorius’ defense attorney, Barry Roux -- that police were informed that the DPP had decided to press ahead with the attempted murder counts against Botha and two others.
Malila told Eyewitness News that there were no plans to remove Botha from the Pistorius murder investigation. However, Botha could face a lengthy trial after answering his own charges in court in May.
With Botha's credibility under strong attack, the Pistorius trial appears to be taking on shades of the O.J. Simpson murder trial in Los Angeles in 1995: a high-profile case that divided the nation and was marked by police bungling.
On Wednesday, Pistorius' defense team accused Botha of putting the worst possible interpretation on the evidence, portraying it as favoring the prosecution case and ignoring elements that were consistent with Pistorius' story.
Botha's testimony Wednesday initially appeared to be damning. He said one witness heard noises that sounded like a quarrel shortly before the killing. A neighbor heard a shot, a woman scream, then more gunshots at his house the night Pistorius fatally shot model Steenkamp, he said.
Botha also said Pistorius didn't phone an ambulance after killing her. The athlete had a history of threatening people, and boxes of needles and bottles containing testosterone were found in his room, he told the court.
But the evidence swiftly unraveled. Under examination by Roux, it turned out that Pistorius had phoned an ambulance but that Botha had not bothered to call the medical service provider to check. The testosterone, Roux said, was a herbal remedy, not steroids or a banned substance.
Roux also cast doubt about the witnesses cited by Botha.
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