Long walk for Oscar

2014-03-16 14:01

Who’s got their nose in front as it stands, the state or the accused? According to legal experts, it’s not the Paralympian.

Two weeks into Oscar Pistorius’ murder trial, top criminal law experts polled by City Press are divided on the state of play.

Five legal experts believe the state’s case is going strong, while another three said it was too early to tell with only a fraction of the evidence presented to court so far.

City Press polled eight top legal minds – six of whom declined to be named – saying they could not comment on a case that was still before court.

One former prosecutor, who asked not to be named, said Pistorius’ advocate, Barry Roux, was “kicking up dust, causing chaos with little bits and pieces because he hasn’t got a case”.

The prosecutor added: “We know a person on his own version said he shot, and with the number of shots and that type of s**t-dangerous bullet, he had every intention of killing a person. It doesn’t matter who was behind the door, even if it was a tokoloshe.”

A top Joburg senior counsel who asked not to be named said there were a “few aspects of the case that were difficult to reconcile with Pistorius’ version of events”.

The advocate referred specifically to evidence that screaming was heard before gunshots were fired on the night Reeva Steenkamp died.

This is something Roux said was explained by the fact the athlete had been screaming and had sounded like a woman.

Roux indicated expert evidence will be led in this regard.

William Booth, another criminal defence lawyer, said the case was a long way from completion and could still go either way.

But he said “important evidence of [Pistorius’] neighbour with regard to the timeline, the sequence of the shots and the screaming had gone a long way to establishing what happened”.

Two other experts agreed that, for the moment, the case appeared to be going the state’s way – not because the state’s evidence was strong, but because Pistorius’ version of events, as outlined in his plea explanation, was difficult to explain.

The past week has seen mounting evidence of police bungling and incompetence in the way the Pistorius crime scene investigation was handled.

Some of the revelations included that:

.?A police ballistics expert had handled the gun Pistorius used to kill Steenkamp without wearing protective gloves;

.?Two expensive watches worth tens of thousands of rands had disappeared from his house, necessitating body searches of police officers on the scene;

.?The toilet door had been further damaged while in police custody;

.?The toilet door had been put in a large body bag and kept in an office at the Boschkop Police Station; and

.?The crime scene photos showed that objects such as the flip-flops and a towel covering a white iPhone in the bathroom had been moved.

But three other experts say it is too soon to say which side is winning.

Professor Stephen Tuson, a professor of criminal law at the University of the Witwatersrand, asked if a “watch can be stolen from a crime scene, what else can be done?”

He added: “People mustn’t draw conclusions from what they’ve seen [in the case] so far.

“They’ve only heard a small part of the case and they really have to reserve judgment until they’ve heard everything.”

Tuson said the crucial question related to how serious the police lapses were.

He explained that Roux was trying to show that reliable conclusions could not be drawn from the forensic evidence found at the scene because the scene had been compromised.

“What the defence is going to be arguing is that all these procedural mistakes made by police have so badly interfered with and contaminated the scene [that we] can’t really rely on anything you say you found on your scene.”

According to him, if “you knock out the forensic evidence as unreliable and you can’t draw any reliable conclusions from the forensic evidence, what you’re left with is Oscar’s version”.

Renier Spies, a criminal defence lawyer, also said it was too early to tell and said there had been a lot of “to and fro” between the state and the defence.

“To draw a conclusion [from forensic evidence], a scientific result must be reliable and that depends on the integrity of the crime scene and the continuity of the evidence, which includes the chain of custody.

“The defence has gone far in neutralising some of the forensic evidence.”

But this is where the problem lies, according to an experienced former prosecutor.

“Never mind all that fancy forensic evidence, this case will be won or lost on Oscar’s evidence. His state of mind is crucial and nobody can tell you what his state of mind is except him.”

Booth agreed.

“Even if all the forensics are excluded, there’s still the problem of Oscar’s version. Even if he gets off on murder, there’s still culpable homicide hanging there and the risk of conviction is still very real.”

Oscar Pistorius: What stories wood may tell

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