Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius sits in the dock during court proceedings at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria March 12, 2014.
Oscar Pistorius’s version of events on the night he shot dead his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp were challenged today by a forensic investigator claiming Pistorius was on his stumps when he beat down the toilet door.
Pistorius, accused of murdering Steenkamp, says he woke during the early hours of Valentine’s Day last year, got up on his stumps and brought two fans in from the balcony. He heard a noise in the bathroom and grabbed his gun from under his pillow and returned to the bathroom where he fired shots through the toilet door believing an intruder was behind it. Then, when he couldn’t find Steenkamp, he returned to the bedroom, put on his prosthetic legs and beat down the door with a bat.
Defence Advocate Barry Roux this morning began his cross examination of Lieutenant Colonel Johannes Gerhardus Vermeulen, a policeman working in the scientific analysis section within the Forensic Science Laboratory, by arguing against the state’s contention that Pistorius was on his stumps when he broke the toilet door with a cricket bat.
He asked how Vermeulen had earlier demonstrated that the height of the blows matched those delivered by a person the height of Pistorius not wearing his prosthetic legs by standing on his knees. Roux asked Vermeulen to repeat the demonstration – which he did. He then asked Vermeulen to lift his feet off the floor. The exercise caused Vermeulen to become unbalanced.
Roux said this meant that Pistorius could therefore not have been well balanced and able to wield the cricket bat with force while on his stumps. Vermeulen said he could not comment on this as he was not an expert on disabled athletes. He said he believed that asking him to stand on his knees and lift his feet causing his imbalance was not a fair comparison to Pistorius on his stumps.
Vermeulen confirmed that the door had been removed from the scene, kept in safe custody, returned to the scene and screwed back on the hinges on 8 March last year when he conducted his site visit.
Roux said he believed that the door had not necessarily been kept in safe custody and that additional marks could have been introduced on the door during its transportation.
He asked Vermeulen where the missing pieces of the door were. Vermeulen said he was unable to say where they were – if they had been left on the scene, or if they had been collected. He had not been on the scene when the evidence was collected. He had never asked for the missing pieces because he received only the door to examine and his brief had been to investigate the markings and damage.
Questioned further on the missing pieces of door, Vermeulen said the understanding he had was that those exhibits were not available and that they were not present in the SAP 13 (official locked-up evidence) stores. He could not remember who had told him this.
Vermeulen said he had been briefed to examine the door and check for matches between damage on the door and the cricket bat. He had not been asked to specifically prove whether or not Pistorius had been on his stumps – it had been an observation he had drawn independently and shared with prosecutor Gerrie Nel.
Vermeulen said he had been told that Nel had shared this evidence with the defence and so he had seen no need to draw up a second report in regard to his findings that Pistorius had not been wearing his prosthetic legs when he broke down the door with the bat.
Hammering on the point that Vermeulen had not made a formal report on this, Vermeulen re-iterated that he had not been told this was an important issue and because he had shared his findings with Nel and all relevant parties, he had seen no reason to open a new report.
Roux then asked Vermeulen if he had considered the trajectory of the bat when it hit the door. Vermeulen said he was conscious of the fact that he was not dealing with a firearm. He had been asked to make a finding on the position of the bat when it hit the door. He had worked out this angle and believed there would be very little change in the angle – about one or two degrees – if it was moving.
“What did you take into account looking at the expected position?” Roux asked.
Vermeulen said he had initially looked at the natural or comfortable position a tall person would take when swinging the bat. He had found that to make a consistent mark he had to lower himself and adopt an unnatural position to make the mark.
Roux asked his candidate attorney to perform the same demonstration by swinging the bat at the door while standing. Vermeulen objected, showing that the man was not holding the bat at a natural angle. Vermeulen repeated the demonstration himself, showing how he could not hit the door on the mark in a comfortable position while standing.
He said he had been aware that if points were taken in isolation it was possible to skew the results of his finding, so he had been aware of the need to take all factors into account.
Asked to demonstrate a strike on the third mark on the door where the bat was hit hard enough to break through the panel, Vermeulen said he needed to make an explanation first. He said if a nail was hit into wood and removed it would not be possible to replace the nail in the hole it made without using a hammer. In the same way, it would not be possible to place the bat back in the cracked door with ease, not using extreme force.
Roux asked him to bend while demonstrating a bat strike, Vermeulen carried out the action but said he could get a match on the angle but that his position was unnatural and uncomfortable.
Roux suggested to Vermeulen that he believed that striking with a bent back was unnatural. Vermeulen said the marks would match if Pistorius was on his stumps. Otherwise he would be in an unnatural position.
Roux said the strike would depend on shoulder turn, distance from the door and the bending of the back, and asked Vermeulen how many “unnatural positions” he had experimented with and if he had photographs or videos to show this.
Vermeulen said he believed the demonstration he had given was sufficient to explain his evidence and that it had not been necessary to conduct other experiments.
Roux said it was consistently true that the door was in tact before shots were fired through it. Vermeulen agreed, adding he believed the gun shot holes were made before the door was struck with the bat because this was consistent with the relation of cracks in the door to a bullet hole.
Court adjourned for a check on the recording equipment and will continue again at 2pm after the lunch break.