The Pistorius Case: Do Police Claims Fit the Story?

As a court tries to decide whether to grant the athlete bail, lawyers and detectives go at what led up to the death of Reeva Steenkamp

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Oscar Pistorius stands during a break in court proceedings at the Pretoria Magistrate Court in Pretoria, South Africa, on Feb. 20, 2013

Oscar Pistorius’ lawyer on Wednesday tore into the lead South African detective accusing the Olympic and Paralympic sprinter of the premeditated murder of his girlfriend, forcing him to admit he found no inconsistencies between the evidence and Pistorius’ account of how he accidentally shot model Reeva Steenkamp after mistaking her for a burglar. The police “take every piece of evidence and try to extract the most possibly negative connotation and present it to the court,” Pistorius’ defense lawyer Barry Roux told the court. Later Roux repeatedly asked National Prosecuting Authority investigating officer Detective Warrant Officer Hilton Botha whether he found anything at the scene inconsistent with the version of events presented by Pistorius in court on Tuesday. Botha said he had not.

Pistorius, a double amputee nicknamed the Blade Runner for his distinctive thin carbon-fiber running protheses — and who became one of the stars of the 2012 London Olympics — was arrested early on the morning of Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14. The hearing at Pretoria Magistrate Court, now in its third day, is nominally to decide whether to grant him bail. But as both sides set out their case for whether Pistorius is a flight risk and a danger to the public, the case has become, in effect, a trial in itself. On Tuesday, Pistorius set out his version of the killing, admitting to shooting Steenkamp through a toilet door but saying he thought she was a burglar. And on Wednesday, state prosecutors responded, calling lead detective Hilton Botha to set out the case for premeditated murder, the most serious murder charge in South African law.

On Tuesday, Pistorius, 26, said he and Steenkamp, 29, went to bed soon after 10 p.m. after a quiet dinner together at his home in the South African capital. At around 3 a.m., Pistorius said he woke up to fetch a fan from his balcony, and when he stepped back into the bedroom, he heard a noise from the bathroom. Keenly aware of South Africa’s epidemic violent crime, he said he reached for a 9-mm pistol he kept under his bed, called out to the intruder, then shot four times through the door. (Pistorius claims not to have been using his prostheses; the prosecution, pointing to the angle of the shots, hints it may be otherwise.) Only when he returned to the bed to discover Steenkamp was not there did he begin to realize she might be in the toilet. He beat down the door with a cricket bat, carried her limp body to his front door but — shot in the head, hip and elbow — she died. “I fail to understand how I could be charged with murder, let alone premeditated murder, as I had no intention to kill my girlfriend,” said Pistorius in an affidavit read to the court on Tuesday by his lawyer. “Nothing can be further from the truth. I deny the allegation in the strongest terms.”

Initially on Wednesday, Botha appeared to present a wholly different scenario. First Botha said he found two boxes of “steroids” in Pistorius’ bedroom, though he later changed this to “two boxes of testosterone, needles and injections.” He added one witness had heard a fight, “two people talking loudly at each other,” between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. The lights in Pistorius’ house were on, he said, contradicting Pistorius’ version that the shooting occurred in the dark. He also detailed violent threats made by Pistorius to another man in a dispute over a girl and an incident in which he said Pistorius fired a gun in a restaurant in January. “I believe that he knew that Reeva was in the bathroom and he shot four shots through the door,” said Botha, adding that the trajectory of the rounds indicated they were aimed deliberately at her. Prosecutor Gerrie Nel, projecting a plan of Pistorius’ house, said there was no way for Pistorius to have walked past the bed to the bathroom without noticing Steenkamp was not in bed. “There’s no other way of getting there,” Nel said.

But Roux rapidly tore apart the state’s case. When the lawyer said the drugs in Pistorius’ bedroom were not testosterone but an herbal remedy called testo-compositum co-enzyme, Botha admitted he was not sure he had read the name correctly. Pressured again, Botha conceded that the witness who overheard the argument lived 600 m away, a figure he later adjusted to 300 m. The officer also admitted he had not worn protective footwear to prevent contamination of the scene and that Pistorius’ legal team had found a spent bullet cartridge in the toilet bowl that Botha’s officers had missed. Botha also said he had had “no problem” with Pistorius receiving bail in the first instance but later changed his mind when he discovered more details about the case. Finally, when magistrate Desmond Nair asked whether Botha opposed bail because Pistorius was a flight risk, and Botha agreed, Nair asked: “You believe he would take the option, on protheses as he is, known as he is, to flee South Africa if he was granted bail?” To laughter in court, Botha replied: “It’s possible.”

The hearing was adjourned to Thursday morning.