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Pistorius' lawyer questions police testimony and handling of evidence

March 12, 2014|By Robyn Dixon
  • Forensic investigator J.G. Vermeulen, with a cricket bat in hand, on Wednesday demonstrates how the door through which defendant Oscar Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend could have been broken down with the bat.
Forensic investigator J.G. Vermeulen, with a cricket bat in hand, on Wednesday… (Werner Beukes / Associated…)

PRETORIA, South Africa — A police officer left a shoe print — later apparently wiped off — on the door that is one of the most crucial exhibits in the murder trial of South African Olympian athlete Oscar Pistorius, defense attorney told Pretoria’s high court Wednesday.

Pistorius shot through the door when he killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, who had locked herself in a toilet off the bathroom in the early hours of Valentine’s Day last year.

The broken door with four visible bullet holes stood in the courtroom Wednesday. A long crack in the door with a missing section next to the handle could be seen, where Pistorius broke in with a cricket bat.

In a comment suggesting that police failed to safeguard important evidence, attorney Barry Roux said that while the door was in their possession it somehow got “serious marks” on it, referring to the foot print. He implied that police later wiped the mark off.

Pistorius, a double amputee who made history competing in the able-bodied Olympics in London in 2012, has pleaded not guilty to the murder of Steenkamp, claiming he took her for an intruder when he shot her.

Roux also attacked a police forensic expert, Lt. Col. J.G. Vermeulen, who admitted he didn’t examine a mark low on the door to test whether it was made by Pistorius kicking it with his prosthetic leg before breaking open the door with a cricket bat.

Roux was cross-examining Vermeulen, who earlier testified that his analysis convinced him that Pistorius wasn’t wearing his prosthetic legs when he hit the door with the bat. Roux said that he would prove to the court that his client kicked the door in that spot, leaving a fragment of sock from his prosthetic leg.

It’s common ground between defense and prosecution that Pistorius hit the door with the bat, but court arguments Wednesday centered on whether Pistorius was wearing his prosthetics when he did so.

If it was shown that Pistorius was on his stumps, it would cast doubt on the athlete’s story that after shooting Steenkamp, he put on his prosthetic legs, tried to kick down the door and then broke open the door with a cricket bat to get to his dying girlfriend. According to the defense, Pistorius was screaming hysterically at the time.

The cricket bat with team signatures on it used to hit the door was in the court. In a reenactment of what he believed happened, Vermeulen went onto his knees —  simulating the approximate height of the athlete without his artificial legs — raised the bat like an ax and brought it down against the door. At one point in the demonstration he accidentally tapped the door with the bat, causing murmurs of laughter in the court.

The door was set up in a white frame with a scale model of the toilet cubicle with waist-high white walls. Inside the cubicle was a toilet bowl.

Vermeulen said two marks on the door matched the bat. In addition, there were matching marks on the bat, leaving little doubt it struck the door. He mentioned a third mark which he could not say was caused by the bat.

During a court break requested by the defense, Roux, wielded the bat at various angles at the door, trying different positions, as Pistorius stood by offering comments.

When the session resumed, Roux suggested to Vermeulen that Pistorius would not have been able to balance on his stumps when hitting the door. He made Vermeulen demonstrate on his knees, lifting his feet off the floor behind him while wielding the bat, and the expert did lose his balance.

But Vermeulen replied that if Pistorius had the balance to fire a gun without his prosthetics, he would have enough balance to hit the door with the bat.

Roux made Vermeulen try a different angle, hitting the door from a standing position with his back bent. Vermeulen said it was “unnatural” to hit the door with the bat from that position.

The forensic expert said it was important to take into account the most natural position for a person to wield the bat against the door in order to determine the angle at which the bat hit.

“It's important to note the natural position,” he testified. “When you do certain actions you do not do it in an unnatural position.”

“Forget about what you regard as natural,” said Roux, showing irritation. “When you were standing with your back bent, did it match?”

“It matched, if I bent myself into an unnatural position,” Vermeulen said.

As the scenes involving the bat were broadcast live, South African cricketer Herschelle Gibbs tweeted that he could see his signature on it.

Vermeulen said the evidence on the door suggested that at least one of the bullets was fired before the bat struck the door.

A neighbor, Dr. Johan Stipp, last week described hearing two volleys of sounds like shots, around the time Pistorius shot Steenkamp. He described the first volley, “Boom, boom, boom,” followed by what sounded like a woman screaming, then two or three sounds like shots.

The defense case is that the first volley was the shots that killed Steenkamp, and the second of these volleys was the bat hitting the door. Roux contends the screaming came from Pistorius, not Steenkamp.

The prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, says the second volley consisted of the shots that killed Steenkamp but hasn’t explained the first volley of shot-like sounds.


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Twitter: @robyndixon

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