Oscar Pistorius's hopes rise after lawyer savages detective's evidence

Hilton Botha was confident when he set out the case against the runner. Then the cross-examination began

Pretoria

The case against Oscar Pistorius has been left in the balance after the Paralympian’s defence team cast serious doubts over police work at the scene of Reeva Steenkamp’s death. One week after the world awoke to the news that South Africa’s most recognisable sportsman had been arrested and that his girlfriend had been killed, there is now a real possibility that he will be released on bail to await his trial.

The Pistorius defence team has already made overtures to the director of South Africa’s National Prosecutorial Authority about throwing out the charges. This raises the possibility of the country’s most high-profile case in recent memory following the “Zuma route” – so named after the technicality by which President Jacob Zuma’s persistent corruption charges were dismissed.

Another day of intense courtroom drama in Pretoria had begun confidently for the prosecution as investigating officer Hilton Botha, the first policeman to arrive at Mr Pistorius’s home after the killing, explained that what he found could in “no way” have been an accident. Ms Steenkamp was already dead when the detective reached Mr Pistorius’s home. She was dressed in shorts and a vest and wrapped in towels with gunshot wounds in her hip, her head and her arm.

With a floorplan of the upper storey of the athlete’s luxury home projected on to the wall of Court C, Mr Botha said that he had been persuaded by ballistics experts that Mr Pistorius had chased her into the bathroom and moved close to the door of the toilet cubicle before shooting four shots, three of which hit Ms Steenkamp. The prosecution then asked the court why had she locked herself in the bathroom if she did not feel threatened.

The notion of the runner mistaking his girlfriend’s late-night trip to the toilet for an intruder was rejected as Mr Botha told the court that two different neighbours had reported “non-stop” shouting from the house. One witness reported hearing gunshots, a woman screaming and then more gunshots. The detective described four phones recovered from the scene –two iPhones and two BlackBerries – none of which had been used to contact the police or paramedics, as the defence had claimed. The prosecution also stressed that the height and angle of the bullet holes in the bathroom door suggested they had been fired by the athlete while wearing his prosthetic legs. In Mr Pistorius’s statement on Tuesday, he claimed he was moving around his house on his stumps.

But the most acute tension came when the stocky policeman – who was speaking in English, his second language, and struggled to make himself heard in the overcrowded courtroom – described other items discovered at Mr Pistorius’s home. There would be additional charges, he said, after a safe was found to contain unlicensed heavy-calibre ammunition. He also stated that he considered the Paralympic champion to be a “flight risk” after documents relating to overseas bank accounts were found, and mentioned Mr Pistorius’s ownership of a house in Italy.

 There was audible surprise when, at the prompting of prosecutor Gerrie Nel, the detective suggested that “bottles of steroids and needles” had been found. He quickly corrected himself to say the bottles contained “testosterone”, although it would later emerge that this claim was incorrect. Almost as soon as the tall figure of Barry Roux began to question the experienced detective, the tone changed decisively. Mr Botha’s occasional stumbles became outright confusion under forensic cross-examination. The policeman was forced to admit that he was unsure of the labelling on the bottles, which the defence maintained were in fact an unrestricted homeopathic supplement that shares nothing but its first two syllables with the steroid. It then emerged that Mr Botha’s claim about the Italian house was based on hearsay. He was chided gently by Mr Roux after admitting that he had tramped through the crime scene without using protective footgear. The issue of the missing phone calls was cleared up when the defence said they were in possession of a fifth phone that had been used. The assertion that Mr Pistorius must have been standing close to the bathroom door when he fired his 9mm pistol was also countered with the help of a pointer which showed that he could have shot – as he claims – from the entrance to the bathroom. The wounds suffered by Ms Steenkamp were consistent with that assertion.

Equally damaging was Mr Botha’s admission that the witnesses who reported hearing shots and voices had been more than half a kilometre from Mr Pistorius’s house. Mr Botha was accused of “disregarding any evidence” which was not consistent with his preconceived notion that a murder had taken place. After more than an hour of hectoring, the detective, with 26 years of experience, was asked by Mr Roux whether the state’s evidence was “inconsistent” with the account given by Mr Pistorius the previous day. A forlorn Mr Botha replied “no”.

During these exchanges the hunched, sobbing Mr Pistorius of the first day was replaced by an upright, alert observer. “At last the truth is coming out,” said his uncle Arnold. 

By the time Mr Botha left, he admitted he was no longer confident that the accused athlete would be denied bail, despite the seriousness of the charges against him. The prosecution team who had remained silent for much of the final hour admitted privately that it had been a “damaging” day. Today both sides must make their concluding arguments. The prosecutor does so knowing that should Mr Pistorius be bailed, he may never be back in the dock again.

Waiting game: South Africa's bail rules

The bail hearings for Oscar Pistorius are not intended to determine guilt or innocence, despite the detailed claims and counterclaims put forward at the Pretoria Magistrates Court this week about the events surrounding the death of Reeva Steenkamp.

As South African law scholar Pierre de Vos explains, bail is not easily denied in South Africa. Under South African law, every person arrested has the right “to be released from detention if the interests of justice permit”. A court cannot withhold bail to punish the accused, or to demonstrate disapproval of the alleged crime. To do this would “amount to a form of detention without trial, which was widely used in the Apartheid era against political opponents of the National Party regime”. If Pistorius is denied bail, he could also spend months, if not years, in prison while awaiting trial – also reminiscent of Apartheid.

The defence must show that Pistorius is not a flight risk, is not a danger to the public, and would not jeopardise the investigation into the crime he is accused of committing for bail to be granted.

But the defence’s task was further complicated when the magistrate ruled that the bail hearings would proceed on the basis that Pistorius should be charged with a “Schedule 6” premeditated murder. This carries a minimum life sentence and puts the onus on the defence to establish “exceptional circumstances” which allow the court to release him pending trial – prompting both sides to provide more detailed evidence and argument sooner than they had initially intended.

Daniel Howden and Enjoli Liston

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Extras
indybest
News
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
education
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform