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Oscar Pistorius was without prosthetic legs after shooting, expert says

CrimeHomicideCrime, Law and JusticeOscar PistoriusReeva SteenkampPretoria (South Africa)

PRETORIA, South Africa -- A broken, bullet-pierced bathroom door was introduced as evidence Wednesday in the murder trial of South African Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius -- the same door Pistorius shot through when he killed his girlfriend last year.

There were four bullet holes visible and a long crack with a missing section next to the handle, where a cricket bat broke open the otherwise largely intact door.

Police forensic expert  Lt. Col. Gerhard Vermeulen told Pretoria’s High Court that, according to his analysis, Pistorius was not wearing his prosthetic legs when he hit the door with the bat.

Pistorius, a double amputee who made history competing in the Olympics in London in 2012, has pleaded not guilty to the murder of Reeva Steenkamp in the early hours of Valentine’s Day last year. He contends that he shot her through the door of a toilet off the bathroom by mistake, believing her to be an intruder.

Pistorius' defense lawyers and the prosecution agree that after firing the shots, he hit the bathroom door with the bat, but court arguments Wednesday focused on whether the athlete was wearing his prosthetics at the time.

Vermeulen said marks on the door matched marks on the bat, leaving no doubt that the bat was used to hit the door, which was set up in the courtroom in a white frame with a scale model of the toilet cubicle and waist-high white walls. Inside the cubicle was a toilet bowl.

In a reenactment of what he believed happened, Vermeulen got on his knees, raised Pistorius' bat like an ax and brought it down against the door. At one point in the demonstration, he accidentally tapped the door with the bat.

Defense lawyers maintain that after shooting Steenkamp, an hysterical and screaming Pistorius put on his prosthetics and broke open the door with his bat to get to his dying girlfriend.

During a court break requested by the defense, Pistorius’ lawyer, Barry Roux, wielded the bat at various angles at the door, trying different positions, as the athlete stood by offering comments.

Later in the court session, Roux suggested to Vermeulen that Pistorius would not have been able to balance on his stumps when hitting the door. He made Vermeulen demonstrate that theory on his knees, lifting his feet off the floor behind him while wielding the bat. The forensic expert lost his balance.

Vermeulen said that if Pistorius had the balance to fire a gun without his prosthetics, he would have had enough balance to hit the door with the bat.

Roux then made Vermeulen try a different angle, hitting the door from a standing position with his back bent. Vermeulen said it was “unnatural” to hit the door with the bat from that position.

The forensic expert said it was important to take into account the most natural position for a person to wield the bat against the door in order to determine the angle at which the bat hit.

“It's important to note the natural position," he testified. “When you do certain actions, you do not do it in an unnatural position."

“Forget about what you regard as natural,” Roux said, showing irritation. “When you were standing with your back bent, did it match?”

"It matched, if I bent myself into an unnatural position," Vermeulen said.

As the scenes involving the bat and door were broadcast live, South African cricketer Herschelle Gibbs tweeted that he could see his signature on it.

The defense contends that Pistorius broke down the door to get to Steenkamp after shooting her, and Vermeulen's testimony supported the view that the door was intact when the bullets were fired and that the bat struck the door later.

He said there were two obvious marks where the bat hit the door and an additional mark that he could not say was caused by the bat.

The defense questioned what happened to missing fragments of the door, from the gap where the bat hit. Vermeulen said he had not been able to establish what happened to them.

A neighbor, Dr. Johan Stipp, in testimony last week described hearing two volleys of sounds resembling gunshots around the time Pistorius shot Steenkamp. He described the first volley -- “Boom, boom, boom” -- followed by what sounded like a woman screaming, then two or three more sounds like shots.

The defense case is that the second of these volleys was the bat hitting the door and that the screaming came from Pistorius, not Steenkamp.

The prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, says the second set of sounds were the shots that killed Steenkamp. He has not so far explained the first set of shot-like sounds.

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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CrimeHomicideCrime, Law and JusticeOscar PistoriusReeva SteenkampPretoria (South Africa)
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