PRETORIA – As Paralympian Oscar Pistorius battled Wednesday to discredit forensics that could prove he lied about the night his girlfriend was killed, his defense lawyer forced police to admit they had mishandled key evidence.
In his testimony, Col. Gerhard Vermeulen admitted that the toilet door in the athlete’s apartment was not handled with care and potentially important evidence was missed at the crime scene, which could have far-reaching consequences for the prosecution’s case.
Pistorius has been charged with the premeditated murder of his girlfriend, Steenkamp, whom he shot through a locked toilet door early Valentine’s Day last year. If convicted, he faces 25 years in prison.
Pistorius, a double amputee known as the “Blade Runner,” shot her four times through the door and bashed it in with a cricket bat, offering possible valuable ballistic and forensic evidence about the sequence of events.
The 27-year-old says he mistook her for an intruder and has plead not guilty.
Under fierce examination from Pistorius’ lawyer, Barry Roux, Vermeulen revealed footprints matching police boots appeared on the door in photos and were later rubbed off.
He also said the door was taken from the scene and propped up against a cabinet and that shards of the door, which could have shone light on what happened the night of the killing, were missed.
“I did not pay attention to that stuff,” Vermeulen said.
It was a setback for the state after Vermeulen had testified that Pistorius was likely on his stumps at the time he broke down the door with a cricket bat, contradicting the sprinter’s account.
The forensics investigation is expected to form a key pillar of the state’s case against Pistorius.
“Roux’s job is to create as much doubt as he can, and this was manna from heaven for him,” said forensic expert David Klatzow, speaking from Cape Town. “It was always unwise to take that door out and remove it from the scene,” he said. “The real question the court needs to address is this: Was the relevant evidence destroyed or damaged to the extent that it has no value?”
The South African Police Service is widely criticized for being inefficient and corrupt, and contamination of evidence is expected to play a major role in the Pistorius murder trial.
Last year during Pistorius’ bail hearing, Roux tore apart testimony given by investigating officer Hilton Botha, the first officer at the scene, saying his testimony had “disastrous shortcomings.”
Botha fell apart during his cross-examination, admitting he had not worn protective shoes at the crime scene — he said the force had run out of them — and conceding that Pistorius’ version of events could be true.
The state pulled Botha from the case after it was revealed the officer was facing seven counts of attempted murder in connection with a 2011 incident.
In April 2013, police minister Nathi Mthethwa said nearly 50 police cell phones were confiscated after Pistorius was arrested, after the phones were used to take photos of the crime scene.
Earlier, Verheulen staged a dramatic re-enactment of how Pistorius broke down the door of the toilet, contradicting the sprinter’s claim he was wearing his prostheses when he hit the door with a cricket bat.
“The marks is consistent with him being in a natural position without his prostheses,” said Vermeulen, who was running back and forth from the witness stand to the toilet door, which was mounted in the courtroom, demonstrating how Pistorius swung the cricket bat.
Whether Pistorius wore his prostheses is crucial to both the prosecution and defense account of events on Feb. 14, 2013.
In his affidavit submitted during his bail hearing last year, Pistorius said he was wearing his prosthetic legs when he hit the door with the cricket bat.
“I put on my prosthetic legs, ran back to the bathroom and tried to kick the toilet door open,” said the Paralympic gold medalist. “I went back to the bedroom and grabbed my cricket bat to bash open the toilet door.”