Hilton Botha: The chief police investigator acknowledged sloppy police work and conceded that he could not rule out Oscar Pistorius' version of events based on existing evidence.

Evidence against murder suspect not so irrefutable

Published: Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 2C
Last Modified: Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 - 8:00 am

PRETORIA, South Africa – What began 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, chief police investigator Hilton Botha.

Then a shocker: South African police said Botha faces attempted murder charges in an October 2011 shooting.

Botha is scheduled to appear in court in May on seven counts of attempted murder. Police said Botha and two other police officers fired shots while trying to stop a minivan in the incident.

Wednesday was the second full day of a hearing to decide whether Pistorius, the double amputee nicknamed "Blade Runner" who made Olympic history by running against able-bodied athletes in the 2012 Games in London, should be given bail as he awaits trial for shooting his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, early last Thursday. Pistorius claimed in an affidavit read in court Tuesday that he had mistaken Steenkamp for a burglar and had shot her out of fear.

But 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 Botha grasping for answers.

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

But when questioned by Barry Roux, Pistorius' lawyer, Botha was forced to acknowledge sloppy police work, and he eventually conceded that he could not rule out Pistorius' version of events based on the existing evidence.

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

Using a schematic diagram of the bedroom, the prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, asked Botha to walk Nair through the crime scene. The detective explained that Steenkamp's slippers and overnight bag were on the left side of the bed, next to the sliding balcony door that Pistorius claimed he got up in the middle of the night to close. He also said the holster of Pistorius' 9 mm pistol was found under the left side of the bed, next to where Steenkamp would have been sleeping. That called into question Pistorius' statement that he thought Steenkamp was still in bed when he heard what he feared was the sound of a burglar, the detective said.

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

Roux said the substance was not testosterone, but an herbal supplement that is used by many athletes and is not banned by anti-doping agencies.

Asked if the substance had been tested, 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 Pistorius' 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, 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 Pistorius' home and could have been out of earshot.

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