Oscar Pistorius Trial Day 24: The prosecution remains aggressive

PRETORIA, South Africa – At the end of the proceedings Wednesday, Oscar Pistorius leaned his head against his aunt's handbag and hunched over next to the dock, allowing her hand to stroke his hair as if he were a child.

It was the first day since the defense opened its case more than a week ago that the former Olympic star – who shot and killed girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine's Day last year – did not have to take the stand.

The prosecution says Pistorius opened fire on his girlfriend after a heated argument in a case of premeditated murder. Pistorius remains adamant it was a tragic accident and that he mistakenly believed her to be an intruder.

In a case in which the murder-accused is the only living witness, much hinges on the testimony of expert witnesses interpreting the physical evidence left at the scene. But the specialists appear to be finding little common ground.

On the penultimate day of testimony before the court adjourns for two weeks, the defense attempted to contest state forensic findings in an effort to piece its case back together after several days of damaging cross-examination with Pistorius in the witness box.

Judge Thokozile Masipa on Wednesday in Courtroom GD granted an application made by the state – supported by the defense – for a trial postponement. It was requested by prosecutors on the basis of other pending court cases and with all parties saying they had "personal matters" to tend to.

A flurry of public holidays in South Africa, including the Easter break, means the court will miss out on only seven working days until it returns May 5. The period is "not unduly long," said Masipa, who added, "an accused is entitled to speedy justice."

Back on the stand for a second day, police forensic expert turned private consultant Roger Dixon disputed the conclusions of his former junior colleagues only to become the subject of social media ridicule as prosecutor Gerrie Nel went on the attack.

Dixon testified that – contrary to the findings of police ballistics expert Chris Mangena – all four shots hit Steenkamp "in rapid succession," which is in line with Pistorius' account of the shooting.

Mangena previously remained adamant that the bullets could not have been fired in such a brief period of time because Steenkamp seemingly changed position in between shots. Dixon told the court that the first wound to her hip was an "incapacitating blow" that would have flung her backward onto the wooden magazine rack, with the model receiving her other injuries as she fell.

Nel was incredulous.

"We see this in movies, isn't it?" Nel said. "Somebody is shot, and they're flung backwards. Something like that."

He told Dixon it was "impossible," given the laws of physics and the size of the bullet.

Mangena also said one bullet missed, ricocheting off the toilet tiles twice, hitting Steenkamp in the back and causing a bruise.

Dixon contested, insisting that only the wooden magazine rack could have caused the line of distinct bruises, catching on her skin and pulling her black vest top upward as she fell. He says the type of injury could only be caused by a bullet if it was traveling upward with its original smooth exterior, which is "not improbable, but impossible" due to the shape and mass of bullet fragments found in the toilet and their apparent trajectory.

As Dixon described the location of bullet fragments in Steenkamp's skull, Pistorius vomited audibly in the dock while hunched over a bucket.

The cause of Steenkamp's bruises – although seemingly a peripheral detail – determines much about her original position when the shots were fired.

Dixon's findings potentially cast doubt on some of the most damning testimony the court has heard.

Based on his projected bullet trajectory, Mangena previously testified that Pistorius' girlfriend was cowering in the tiny enclosed cubicle, with her arm raised to seemingly protect her head, as she faced the gunshots. It has been a key element of the state's narrative, built upon the notion that Steenkamp fled from her furious lover.

Dixon, however, suggested that, given her splinter wounds, Steenkamp was standing close to the door at an angle with her arm up and extended forward toward the door handle. This suggests she may have been in the process of opening the toilet door.

Despite constantly qualifying his comments – admitting he is not a forensic pathologist nor a ballistics expert – Dixon testified about a wide range of evidence that was well beyond his specialization in analyzing trace evidence and chemistry.

At one point, he described his interpretation of Steenkamp's injuries as being "in my layman's understanding".

Nel then pounced.

"Do you see how irresponsible it is to make inferences in areas where you are not an expert?" the prosecutor asked.

Systematically working his way through Dixon's conclusions, Nel picked apart the defense consultant's findings. He questioned Dixon's expertise in each area, from the light tests conducted – Dixon admitted the lack of specialized equipment and that "the only instruments I used were my eyes" – to sound experiments in which he was unable to identify the audio recorder used.

Nel pointed out in his questioning about the bat damage to the bathroom door that Dixon had not completed proficiency tests in matching physical marks. Colonel Gerhard Vermeulen, the state expert who conducted the prosecution's bat mark analysis, also lacks a similar qualification.

A source at the police laboratory, who asked to remain unnamed, confirmed that very few forensic experts in the materials science division, which Vermeulen heads, have been certified in their relevant proficiencies.

Under pressure from a visibly frustrated Nel, Dixon admitted that in matching a white fiber mark on the toilet door to Pistorius' sock-covered prostheses, which correlates with the Blade Runner's account of kicking the door, he only photographed the mark in court after the trial had begun and never physically examined the athlete's socks.

"When I saw it in court with a good light I thought, 'Yes, that is nice,'" Dixon told the court.

The prosecutor suggested the fibers could have been transferred to the door during "energetic" cleaning in the courtroom, but Dixon maintained that it would only have been possible with substantial force, "like a kick."

Accusing him of being "evasive" for a supposedly objective expert witness, the prosecutor insinuated that Dixon – despite his 18 years of experience in the police service – was biased. Dixon receives payment from Pistorius, via his legal team, for his services.

At one point, Masipa halted proceedings, asking Nel to "show restraint."

Dixon may have inadvertently created another problem for the defense.

Describing the pattern of bullet holes in the toilet door, he spoke of possible gun recoil after the first shot was fired, causing the hand to lift – and the second shot to be fired slightly higher. In his testimony about the sequence of the bullets, Dixon suggested the shooter moved from left to right, correcting the recoil on the second shot – slightly higher than the first – allowing the third and fourth shots to hit the door lower.

If the shooter – Pistorius – corrected his aim, then it shows he was consciously thinking about the gunshots as he fired, a level of intent he has thus far refused to admit.

Also in contention are the sound tests conducted by the defense, which were admitted into evidence Wednesday.

Dixon explained they removed an identical door from Pistorius' home, recording the sounds made by cricket bat strikes and gunshots with similar ammunition to that used by the Paralympian. Played in court side by side, the sounds of bat strikes and gunshots were discernibly different but sufficiently similar that they might be confused when heard in isolation.

Witnesses in Pistorius' neighborhood testified to hearing "two sets of bangs" on Valentine's morning; the defense insists the second set of noises were the sounds of the desperate athlete striking the door with his bat.

Under cross-examination, Dixon admitted he was not present when the manufactured recordings were made by a music producer and not a forensic audio specialist.

Nel was indignant.

"For me its a question of integrity," Nel said. "Why would you identify gunshots when you weren't present when they were fired?"

The defense is expected to call up as many as 15 witnesses, including several more forensic experts.

The case continues, with Dixon expected back on the stand Thursday.

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