PRETORIA, South Africa – As the court heard testimony Wednesday from a forensic expert contradicting Oscar Pistorius' account of the Valentine's morning he shot his girlfriend, the former Olympic star's defense team showed police – literally – trampled the evidence.
Col. J.G. Vermeulen, a forensic scientist with 29 years of experience, got down on his knees in the courtroom in front of Pistorius' reconstructed toilet door that was part of a scale replica of the cubicle in which Pistorius fatally shot girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.
The battered maranti wood door, reassembled by police and now hanging from a white frame on the prosecution's side of court, was marked with small tabs pointing toward the bullet holes in the grain. Behind it was the reconstructed 4½-foot-by-4½-foot cubicle, replete with ceramic toilet.
The door is still missing the splintered fragments next to the brass door handle, where the Olympic sprinter broke the wood panel with his signed Lazer English Willow cricket bat.
As the morning's proceedings were broadcast live, South African cricket star Herschelle Gibbs tweeted, "Just saw my signature on the bat used by the accused in oscar trial ... lol #neveradullmoment."
Vermeulen described two primary marks on the door that he says are a "physical match" to the cricket bat and correspond with damage to the bat.
Vermeulen took off his suit jacket to demonstrate the swings that damaged the door. From his standing position, the height of the contact made by the bat was some 30 centimeters higher than the mark on the door.
Then the sweating Vermeulen got down on his knees, leaning on a small platform. The bat, as he swung it, fit the marks on the door perfectly.
Gasps were audible from the media benches.
If, as Vermeulen suggests, Pistorius was on his stumps when he hit the door, then he lied in his original account of what happened in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine's Day when the double-amputee athlete killed his girlfriend.
In his February bail affidavit, Pistorius was specific. After shooting Steenkamp and being unable to locate her, he said: "I put on my prosthetic legs, ran back to the bathroom and tried to kick the toilet door open. ... I went back into the bedroom and grabbed my cricket bat to bash open the toilet door."
Vermeulen said he had not read Pistorius' account of events in detail before conducting his investigation in March and did not realize the significance of his findings.
Both the gunshots and cricket bat swings, Vermeulen testified, appear to have been inflicted by a person at approximately the same height – a contention which the defense would later address.
Prosecutor Gerrie Nel has said the state believes Pistorius was not wearing his prostheses when he fired his 9mm – a previous presumed source of dispute with the defense.
Throughout his testimony, Pistorius, the first amputee to compete in the Olympics, remained composed, furiously scribbling notes to his defense team from the dock.
Defense attorney Barry Roux appeared unfazed.
In cross-examination, he began detailing the shoddy police work and evidence contamination, which he promised in his opening arguments.
When questioned, Vermeulen admitted that when he began his investigation he found the toilet door in a body bag, unprotected by bubble wrap. He said his team had reassembled the door with a sticky material used to hang posters before leaning it against a filing cabinet to conduct his tests.
Roux pulled out a photograph of a door panel marked with a shoe print.
"Ah, that's a police boot," said Vermeulen, laughing nervously.
"Where is it [the boot mark] now?" asked Roux.
Vermeulen examined the door hanging in court. "It's not here anymore," he replied.
Roux pressed Vermeulen on several other marks that subsequently had appeared on the door since it was first photographed in Pistorius' home.
"Umm, yes. There are significant marks," Vermeulen admitted.
When asked where the other splintered fragments of the door were being kept, Vermeulen said he had not been given access to them, despite his requests. At one point Vermeulen suggested they may not have been collected before his assignment to the investigation on March 8 of last year.
Roux showed a photograph of Vermeulen standing with the bat in front of the door, next to a bag of splintered wood fragments.
"Oh, I didn't see them," Vermeulen said.
Roux asked where the door had been kept after it was removed from the scene. Vermeulen could not say.
"I must admit the door and bat were not in the same condition as when they were collected," Vermeulen said, adding that several people had handled the evidence before it reached his hands.
Replacing his usual raised-eyebrow glare, defense advocate Kenny Oldwage nodded at Vermeulen during his testimony, smiling.
During a brief adjournment, the defense team and murder-accused gathered around a door, with a robed Roux wielding the cricket bat.
As the court reconvened, Roux continued his attempt to pick apart the police investigation.
He asked Vermeulen to strike the door with the bat in a standing position, but from a greater distance. Vermeulen insisted that the striking stance was unnatural for any human being, but eventually admitted the door markings could have been caused from such a stance.
Roux then asked the rotund colonel to try to strike the door balancing only on his knees, in an attempt to simulate Pistorius' stumps. Vermeulen said it was not a fair comparison. "If he [Oscar] could fire a gun [on his stumps], then I imagine he could swing a bat," Vermeulen replied.
Roux said the defense will call other expert witnesses in the coming days to detail the balance and mobility of a double amputee.
Hinting at police incompetence, Roux questioned why Vermeulen was assigned to investigate the door, when tool-mark examiners – who receive specific training in the microscopic analysis of marks left on surfaces – are part of the same department. And he asked the forensic expert why he had not included his major finding – that Pistorius was on his stumps when he struck the door – in his report. The colonel insisted his test results are there, even if the explicit conclusion was not.
Raising serious concerns about police objectivity, Roux asked Vermeulen why no one had been assigned to investigate Pistorius' assertion that he kicked the door with his prostheses, pointing at a scuff mark on the door ostensibly containing some of the athlete's sock fabric.
Vermeulen said he "didn't pay attention to that stuff," as he was only tasked with examining damage caused by the bat. He said it was the investigating officer's decision, adding that it seemed "not important at the time."
As Vermeulen presented evidence, he made several crucial statements that will dramatically affect the shape of the prosecution's case.
Crucially, the forensic expert said he agrees with the defense, in that the blows to the door were only inflicted after gunshots were fired through the wood. The sequence of damage to the door is critical, as it will determine whether or not witnesses could possibly have heard Steenkamp screaming, as they have testified.
Both defense and prosecution agree that Steenkamp would have been unable to scream after a gunshot caused extensive brain damage.
Prosecutor Nel has previously said the state believes the second set of "bangs" that a neighbor heard was Pistorius firing his weapon, which begs the question: If the cricket bat swings only came after the gunshots, what does the prosecution believe the first "bangs" to be?
As photographs of Pistorius' bathroom floor and door fragments covered in blood were displayed on the court monitors, the Paralympian covered his eyes.
Police photographs from Valentine's Day last year showed a red vanity bag perched on the edge of a bathtub draped with discarded towels, cartridge casings marked with grimy traffic cones, and blood spatter on the cream-colored tiles.
Darren Fresco, who testified Tuesday that Pistorius had accidentally fired a gun in a Johannesburg bistro, watched from the public gallery after his continued testimony Wednesday was taken apart by Roux. The defense counsel handed him a photograph of a car speedometer showing that he had driven more than 160 miles per hour before Pistorius fired his gun through the sunroof with no warning – despite his initial insistence that it was Pistorius behind the wheel.
The judge's registrar has confirmed that, despite the initial three weeks set aside for testimony, trial proceedings will continue uninterrupted beyond that period, at least until the court goes into recess after April 4 – and possibly beyond.
The court has so far heard testimony from only 12 of 107 possible state witnesses.
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