Oscar Pistorius trial — a cata

Oscar Pistorius trial — a catalogue of police errors

During the second week of the Oscar Pistorius trial, evidence has come to light creating more questions over the quality of the police work in the investigation, as well as the conditions South African police are expected to perform under.

Oscar Pistorius trial — a cata

At the start of Oscar Pistorius’s murder trial, there were murmurs of speculation over what we might learn about the South African police system, based on what former investigating officer Hilton Botha’s admissions at last year’s Oscar Pistorius bail hearing.

We heard from several experts this week, including one of the first officers on the scene and a forensics analyst, who confirmed fears that things were not done as they should have been.

From Wednesday, when the reconstructed bathroom door first appeared in court, until today (Friday), Barry Roux, defence, has pressed witnesses on what the police did wrong in an attempt to ruin the state’s case.

1. Treatment of the door

There is allegedly a “significant” mark on the door that can only have happened while in police custody. This is worrying if it means a key piece of evidence was not treated carefully, but we already knew this to an extent: Colonel van Rensburg retired in late 2013 after it emerged that he kept the door in his office instead of in a police evidence room for a week.

Roux asked forensic expert Colonel Johannes Vermeulen about some additional marks on the door, which appear to have been sustained while it was in police custody. All Vermeulen could do was defend himself by saying he was not the one looking after it.

This issue was addressed today as Van Rensburg explained his case that transporting the door in a body bag was the only suitable way under the circumstances and that his office was the safest place for it as he was the only one with a key.

2. Missing splinters from the door

Before lunch on Wednesday, Vermeulen denied knowing what happened to some missing wood chips. After lunch, Roux showed a picture of the scene in which they were visible just behind the door. What’s more, Vermeulen was actually in this photo, but he explained it away by saying he was solely focused on investigating the angle that the cricket bat would have hit the door.

This came up again the next day as Roux continually quizzed Vermeulen on why he did not investigate the whereabouts of these wood chips or another specific mark on the door that the defence propose came from Pistorius kicking the door with his prosthetic legs.

3. Stolen watches

Proceedings this morning were dominated by talk of expensive watches belonging to the accused, that were allegedly stolen from the crime scene by police officers. Two reportedly went missing — one is estimated to be worth between R50,000 and R100,000 — and Van Rensburg summoned the police team to search their bags and cars. One was supposedly taken by Aimee, Pistorius’s sister, who came in and asked to take one for him to wear, but the other seems to have disappeared a few hours later with no explanation.

4. No gloves

During Van Rensburg’s testimony, he mentioned that a ballistics expert at the scene touched Pistorius’s gun — cocking it and removing the magazine — without wearing gloves.

This seems like an amateur mistake that anyone who has watched a crime drama would avoid, but it remains to be seen if this so-called expert has or will be called out on his actions. He simply said “sorry” when reproached by Van Rensburg.

5. Mistakes add up

On top of everything else, Roux made a dig at the police by saying it would have been “fantastic” to have someone analyse the bloody footprints at the scene — something that just didn’t happen.

Van Rensburg testified for a long time this morning about the quality of the police work. He was keen to emphasise his anger towards the sub-standard actions going on, and how he tried to introduce stricter measures at the scene including using so many forensic seals that they almost ran out.

However, Roux brought up questions of what the police disturbed at the scene, and said: “I think as an experienced policeman you would know not to interfere with the scene except to take photographs.”

It is alleged that the crime scene photos cannot be relied upon because evidence must have been moved according to disparities between pictures and original police statements. Roux followed this line of questioning for a long time on Friday, questioning why so many of the objects on the scene appeared to have been shifted around.

24 hour+ shift

Even after all this, perhaps at least the first two officers could be forgiven. Van Rensburg testified that he and his partner had been on duty for 24 hours when they arrived at Pistorius’s estate and they came straight from an armed robbery.

This is not an excuse, but it does shed some light onto the life of a South African police officer and raise questions over how well they can be expected to do their job in such conditions.

However, with so many things going wrong in police hands in such a high profile case, this begs the rather worrying question of what might be happening in more obscure cases.