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Pistorius' lawyer tries to shake police photographer's testimony

CrimeCrime, Law and JusticeShootingsHomicideOscar PistoriusCricketSports

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — In a sign of how crucial police photos may be in the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius, the Olympic athlete's attorney spent most of Tuesday's session in Pretoria’s high court trying to demolish the credibility of the photographic evidence.

Pistorius has pleaded not guilty to the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, saying he shot her through the door of an enclosed toilet last year when he mistook her for a burglar.

Defense attorney Barry Roux cross-examined police photographer Barend Van Staden for hours, seeking to show that key items had been moved by police during the photography process. They included the pistol involved in the slaying, the cricket bat Pistorius used to break open the toilet door afterward and two fans in the bedroom.

“How does it happen that on the picture of 16 February, there is such a disturbance of the scene?” Roux asked, looking at a photograph taken in the main bedroom after the slaying on Valentine's Day last year.

Van Staden remained stoic, replying that he had to move some items as part of the investigation process.

Roux’s contention that police mishandled the scene is an apparent bid to exclude or undercut the importance of the photographs.

His approach Tuesday recalled his long, exhaustive and at times impatient cross-examination of Pistorius' neighbor, Michelle Burger, the first witness in the trial just over two weeks ago. Burger testified that she heard a woman scream before shots were fired. Roux argued she could not have heard a woman’s screaming from an enclosed toilet cubicle in another home.

Van Staden, at times appearing hot in a jacket and tie on a warm summer’s day, admitted that he had reprimanded a superior officer who picked up the pistol without gloves and then told the officer to leave.

The photographer said he picked up the cricket bat to look at its “back.” Pouncing on what initially appeared to be an inconsistency, Roux then mocked Van Staden when it became clear he thought the ridged side of the bat was its “front.”

“Have you ever played cricket?” he said. Van Staden replied in the deadpan tone he has used through two days of evidence that he had not.

“Have you ever watched cricket?”

“Yes.”

“Have you ever seen them hitting with the back side, the side that’s not flat?” he asked, in a voice dripping with condescension.

After prosecutor Gerrie Nel objected, Judge Thokozile Masipa reproved Roux, telling him he could not argue with the witness. It was one of her most pointed interventions so far in the trial, aside from a warning at the outset of the trial telling members of the media not to “misbehave.”

Roux also implied that Van Staden had misled the court when he said he was alone upstairs when taking photos. The attorney said the photograph times on two police cameras appeared to indicate that Van Staden and another officer were in the hall and bathroom at the same time. Van Staden insisted no one was there but him.

Later in the day, a ballistics expert gave evidence on the heights of the four shots that penetrated the toilet door, three of which struck Steenkamp.

One bullet -- the highest shot in the door at about 41 inches -- ricocheted off the walls in the cubicle, Chris Mangena testified.

Mangena used a laser mounted on a tripod to determine that shot was fired at a downward angle of about 5 to 6 degrees. He said the angle corresponded with the laser placed at a distance of about seven feet from the door.

The prosecutor and defense lawyer agree that Pistorius, a double amputee, was not wearing his prosthetic legs when he fired the shots that killed Steenkamp. Roux has indicated the athlete didn’t venture far into the bathroom but fired from the doorway.

Mangena didn’t have time to spell out the conclusions in his forensic report before the court adjourned for the day. His evidence will continue Wednesday.

Steenkamp’s mother, June, was in court throughout Tuesday, listening as Mangena describe the fatal wounds and seeing photographs of the blood-spattered bathroom floor. A day earlier she left court when graphic photographs were shown.

In the morning, Pistorius’ uncle, Arnold, approached her and offered his condolences over her daughter’s death. A day earlier, Steenkamp acknowledged Oscar Pistorius when he greeted her, and also spoke to the athlete’s sister, who approached and spoke to her.

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesdixon

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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CrimeCrime, Law and JusticeShootingsHomicideOscar PistoriusCricketSports
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