PRETOTRIA, South Africa – Reeva Steenkamp cowered behind the locked toilet door, her hands shielding her head, while she faced the volley of bullets flying at her, a ballistics expert told the court Wednesday.
Captain Chris Mangena demonstrated the body stance he believes the model took when her boyfriend Oscar Pistorius fired four bullets at her through a locked bathroom door: wrists crossed, trying to protect her head.
As the ballistics expert spoke, Pistorius put his hands over his face, his thumbs in his ears.
Mangena's testimony is critical.
Steenkamp's "defensive" position – which the defense has indicated they will contest – demonstrates that she had cognitive function after the first bullet hit her and was able to scream in pain, which would have alerted Pistorius to her presence behind the locked door.
Pathologist Gert Saayman, who conducted Steenkamp's autopsy, told Courtroom GD last week that it would have been "unnatural" for someone not to cry out in pain after the hip or arm wounds she received.
The athlete maintains that he did not realize he was shooting at his girlfriend, but rather believed he was firing his 9mm Taurus pistol at an intruder in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine's Day last year.
Mangena – a ballistics expert who has been with the police service for 20 years – says he reasoned various positions for Steenkamp, but a sitting position would have been too low for the hip wound.
When the first bullet was fired, "she was standing in front of the door, facing the door," Mangena testified. "That bullet penetrated and broke the hip bone of the deceased," causing her to fall.
He says he believes Steenkamp then moved backwards and down onto the magazine rack on the floor, raising her off the ground and into the trajectory of the next bullets. If she had been on the floor, Mangena added, the other bullets would have missed her.
The next bullet missed, Mangena said, hitting the wall and ricocheting in two places, before the fragments hit her back.
It was either the third or fourth bullet, he said, that did the most damage.
It passed through the webbing of her left hand and struck her head. "On impact with the skull, the bullet broke into two fragments. One penetrated the skull and was removed during postmortem, and the other piece of the fragment exited towards the back of the head," Mangena said. "She dropped immediately."
The other bullet passed through her raised arm and into her shoulder.
The defense says their experts will contest the sequence of the bullets, alleging in cross-examination that Steenkamp's right side was facing the locked toilet door and that the bruising on her back was caused by a fall onto the magazine rack, not bullets. The ballistics expert remained adamant, emphatically disagreeing with defense attorney Barry Roux.
Roux told Mangena that the athlete used two "double taps" – two shots in rapid succession – when he fired, implying that no reaction may have been possible from whoever was behind the door.
"It's impossible," said Mangena, gesturing at his abdomen. "If it's two double taps, then all the wounds would be in the same position. There wouldn't be any time for her to change position in that instance."
There had to be a break after the first shot, he added, in order for Steenkamp to change position.
Michelle Burger, a witness living in a neighboring estate, said she heard four "bangs," with a pause between the first and second.
Mangena confirmed that it was "most probable" that the double-amputee was on his stumps when he fired, and that the muzzle of the gun was at least two feet from the toilet door. The defense insists that the Paralympian felt vulnerable and fearful, remaining some distance from the toilet when he fired the shots.
Roux questioned why there were no secondary injuries from bullet or bone fragments on Steenkamp's hand, if she was holding her hand so close to her head wound. Mangena dismissed the insinuation, pointing out that fragments would have moved inwards, only spraying outwards towards the wall at the exit wound.
Roux told Mangena that the bullets might have deflected course as they passed through the door. No, Mangena replied, "Black Talon only opens up when it hits a moist target like human flesh."
The court has yet to hear the defense's full interpretation of events, but it may come sooner than expected.
Pistorius could take the stand as soon as next week, once the state rests its case. Prosecutor Gerrie Nel says the plan is to call just "four or five" more witnesses to complete the presentation of evidence, before handing the courtroom floor over to the defense. It means the prosecution will have called just one-fifth of the 107 possible witnesses listed in the indictment.
If the defense decides to call Pistorius to the stand – he has a constitutional right not to testify – he must be called first, "to ensure that he does not fabricate or alter his version as things go along," says Llewelyn Curlewis, the president of South Africa's Law Society.
Curlewis says Pistorius' defense team will have to call him, as much hinges on his state of mind during the shooting. Under South African law, the prosecution must prove his level of intent to murder, which ranges from premeditation to "dolus eventualis" – "where the accused should have foreseen a possible result, but recklessly proceeded nonetheless," Curlewis explains. If found guilty of premeditated murder, Pistorius could face life in prison. A mandatory life sentence, in practice, amounts to 25 years in prison.
After he testifies, the athlete can only be recalled to the stand under "exceptional circumstances," Curlewis says.
Steenkamp's mother, June, sat quietly in court Wednesday, returning late from an adjournment during the testimony of blood spatter expert Col. Ian van der Nest.
A Steenkamp family source confirmed that during Tuesday's proceedings, they were approached by Arnold Pistorius, the Paralympian's uncle who he is currently living with, who offered condolences.
"We are so heartbroken for the life lost," he reportedly said, "Like you, we are trying to fight for a life and a life lost."
Van der Nest supported Mangena's reconstruction of the shooting, having observed Steenkamp's postmortem and examined her injuries.
Initially asked to determine if she had been the victim of blunt-force trauma, he concluded that the blood had come from her gunshot wounds, especially the arterial spurts in her arm and from her head.
He said Steenkamp's arm must have been raised when the bullet passed through it, because of the human tissue debris on her black vest. Van der Nest also found that given the spatter and broken hairs found on the toilet seat cover, she would have been in front of the toilet bowl, in a low body position, when she received her head wound.
Both these findings crucially confirm that the model was in a defensive position and that the bullet that struck her head was not the first shot, allowing her to cry out in pain as she sank to floor.
Van der Nest said the rest of the blood spatter in the house was mostly caused by contact, and arterial bleeding, as well as a drip trail down the stairs, mostly from Steenkamp's blood-soaked shorts and long hair.
Courtroom GD was also made privy to what the athlete was browsing on the internet on Valentine's eve, as police technology expert Col. Mike Sales was called to the stand.
The eight monitors displayed the web history of an iPad 3 that was recovered at the scene, showing that Pistorius was searching for fast cars hours before he shot his girlfriend. The last search was for a "Morgan Aeromax" at 9:19 p.m. that evening.
In the hours before, he did Google searches for a 2011 Aston Martin Rapide, a 2007 Ford Ranger and "youjizz", clicking through to a website that one court reporter described as "bog-standard porn."
The time stamp on the search is 6:30 p.m., half an hour after the time Steenkamp arrived at the housing estate, according to the testimony of security guard Pieter Baba.
Roux pointed out in cross-examination that Sales could not be sure who had accessed the sites, nor if they had done so alone. The police officer agreed.
Sales said the browser history prior to Feb. 13, 2013 had been deleted, and another iPad was retrieved that had similar web-surfing patterns and bookmarks.
The prosecution has asked that the case be postponed until Monday in order to allow them to confer with their next witnesses, who they say live in Pistorius' subdivision.
- Society & Culture
- Crime & Justice
- Oscar Pistorius
- Reeva Steenkamp