The extraordinary saga of Oscar Pistorius’s bail hearing took another unexpected turn today when lead investigator Hilton Botha was removed from the case after attempted murder charges against him were reinstated.
While defence and prosecution lawyers argued over whether Mr Pistorius should be granted bail, the South African Police Service called a press conference on the other side of Pretoria to announce that the veteran detective had been taken off the biggest case of his career.
Mr Botha had endured a withering cross-examination from Mr Pistorius’s defence counsel Barry Roux on Wednesday, in which he was forced to backtrack on several key points in the prosecution’s case. It then emerged overnight that a dormant charge of seven counts of attempted murder had been revived. The charge, relating to an incident in which he was accused of opening fire on a minibus full of passengers in 2011 while pursuing suspects in a murder case, had been dropped.
A spokesperson for South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority – the equivalent of Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service, whose director has the added power of being able to cancel criminal proceedings – insisted that the charge had been reinstated on 4 February, 10 days before Reeva Steenkamp was killed. However, the Pistorius prosecution team were not informed of the complications with their investigating officer before they emerged this morning. There were also indications of a whispering campaign as media outlets in South Africa and the UK were tipped off about the issues surrounding him overnight, before news of the revived charges broke.
The suspended officer will be replaced by a man described as the country’s top detective, Lt Gen Vinesh Moonoo, and a team of “highly-skilled and experienced” officers, a police spokesman said. The case against Mr Botha, who has 24 years’ experience, also alleges that he and two other officers were drunk when the minibus was shot at – a claim Mr Botha denies. South Africa has one of the highest rates of gun-related homicide in the world and veteran court observers said it was not unusual for investigating officers to be facing some sort of internal inquiry.
Mr Pistorius’s mini-trial began its fourth day in disarray with the policeman’s chair in the prosecution team noticably empty. The magistrate, Desmond Nair – who must decide whether to release Mr Pistorius on bail – immediately called for Mr Botha to return to the court. Chief prosecutor Gerrie Nel answered that Mr Botha was in the court building but “wished not to be here”. Earlier Mr Botha had told local radio stations that he was being victimised “because of Oscar”, claiming the charge had resurfaced because of his part in the downfall of the wealthy national hero.
The harried-looking policeman was eventually put back on the stand, where his poor performance the day before had undermined the state’s claims that Mr Pistorius deliberately murdered his girlfriend. His return capped a damaging 24 hours for the prosecution team, which has appeared poorly prepared. Every aspect of Mr Botha’s handling of the case, down to his mastery of English, has been questioned.
Barry Roux has sought to portray Det Botha as someone determined to build a murder case against his client regardless of the facts. “He [Mr Botha] should have said ‘I’m the wrong guy, don’t ask me,’” Mr Roux said. “But he didn’t. He gave theories. And it won’t fly.”
Mr Roux told the court that the state had failed to provide evidence of murder, let alone premeditated or planned murder: “The poor quality of evidence presented by the chief investigating officer exposed disastrous shortcomings in the state’s case,” he said.
Another attempt to determine whether Mr Pistorius might flee should he be granted bail ended in farcical scenes as the prosecutor read aloud from an interview in an Afrikaans women’s magazine in which Mr Pistorius mentioned a house in Italy. The defence has insisted that their client owns no such house and said his status as an international athletics star makes it highly improbable that he would leave South Africa.
Mr Nel tried to turn the focus back on to the seriousness of the charges. “There were two people in the house,” he said. “One survived to give his version.”
He pointed out that the defence had given no explanation as to why two iPhones and the weapon used to kill 29-year-old Ms Steenkamp were found inside the bathroom. In his affidavit, Mr Pistorius claimed he had fired from the doorway of the bathroom and only entered it in an effort to free his dying girlfriend from the toilet cubicle where she had been shot. “The gun and the cell phones are the ‘coup de grace’ for the defendant’s version of what happened,” he said. The magistrate is expected to deliver his ruling on the bail application either today or on Monday after closing arguments have been concluded.
Mean streets: Crime in South Africa
South Africa has one of the highest rates of gun-related homicide in the world. Close to 16,000 people suffered violent deaths in the year to January 2012. In the face of this, South Africa’s police service has proven itself to be bungling and almost as violent as the criminals it is meant to counter.
Since 2006, the number of killings by police has doubled from about 250 per year to more than 500.
South Africa’s police minister Nathi Mthethwa famously responded to criticism at the deadly tactics, saying: “There is a war out there, which by the way has been declared by criminals on society and police.”
Part of the reason that the case involving detective Hilton Botha was not known to the prosecutors in the case against Oscar Pistorius was that such charges are so common that they are not considered newsworthy. A large number of police officers face complaints or investigations relating to police killings. The flip-side is that, on average, more than 100 police officers are killed in the line of duty every year.