JOHANNESBURG – A former police officer testifying in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial admitted on Friday evidence was mishandled on the scene where the Paralympian shot Reeva Steenkamp.
Giliam van Rensburg told the high court in Pretoria he was dismayed to see a colleague pick up the handgun found on Pistorius’s bloodied bathroom floor without protective gloves.
“So I asked him what are you doing?” said Van Rensburg, adding that at this the ballistics expert looked down and realised he was bare-handed. “And then he said ‘sorry’,” said Van Rensburg, a now retired station commander, who was the first policeman to arrive at Pistorius’s home after he shot Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day last year.
The admission came as Van Rensburg was answering questions from prosecutor Gerrie Nel on day 10 of the murder trial, testifying notably that there was no sign of forced entry into the disabled track star’s home.
Pistorius contends that he shot Steenkamp through a locked door in the belief that there was an intruder hiding behind it, and has pleaded not guilty to premeditated murder.
In cross-examination, Pistorius’s lawyer wasted no time in probing for further errors in the police investigation, and accused Van Rensburg of tailoring his evidence to keep former policeman Hilton Botha off the witness stand.
Botha admitted during Pistorius’s bail hearing last year that he failed to wear protective footwear when inspecting the scene of the shooting. He was promptly pulled off the high-profile case and subsequently resigned.
“You allowed yourself to give evidence that was designed to take the place of Mr Botha … You are standing in for Mr Botha’s evidence on aspects that you cannot stand in for,” Barry Roux, for Pistorius, said.
Van Rensburg denied this, adding that Botha had told him that he expected to be called to testify in the trial.
Before he launched into cross-examination, Roux had asked whether the state planned to call Botha, to which Nel responded: “I don’t know yet, My Lady. We’ll decide that as the evidence comes.”
The defence lawyer proceeded to charge that Van Rensburg’s initial statement was silent on “material facts”, implying that in his responses he was relying on observations that were in fact made by Botha.
Slowly taking Van Rensburg through the police’s actions in the hours and days that followed Steenkamp’s shooting, he repeated like a refrain: “Where was Mr Botha?”
Van Rensburg testified that Botha was with him when they followed a trial of blood leading up the stairs of Pistorius’s home, but said he did not see his colleague touch or move anything. Asked why his statement failed to mention Botha’s presence at the time, he said that in police statements “I” can sometimes mean “we”.
Roux asked whether the court could rely on police photographs taken at Pistorius’s home as true reflections of the state in which investigators had found the scene. “When can we rely on the scene photo as a true reflection, and when is it changed?” he said, indicating a picture showing a cell phone lying next to a grey towel on the bathroom floor.
Van Rensburg was forced to concede that initially the towel had covered the phone and said in police investigations only the first photographs should be understood to show a scene unchanged, since more were taken as police continued their work.
Roux pointed out that Van Rensburg had in projections shown to him in court failed to notice the difference between sets of photographs of the same scene – including the altered position of a pair of white flip-flops – and asked the witness: “How do you feel about your ability to observe?”
It was above average, the former station commander replied modestly after a difficult morning.
He told the court he erected security barriers around Pistorius’s home the scene of the shooting after an expensive watch belonging to the accused mysteriously disappeared. “I didn’t trust anyone at that stage,” he said.
Van Rensburg said when he arrived at the house, he found Steenkamp’s body under bloodied coverings. Pistorius was pacing the kitchen floor and was too distraught to respond when asked what had happened.
“My deduction was that as a result of his emotional state, he was not able to answer.”
The state did not re-examine Van Rensburg and Judge Thokozile Masipa adjourned the trial until Monday morning.
The trial is expected to continue until April 4. – Sapa