South Africa replaces lead detective in Pistorius inquiry

Hilton Botha, who faces charges of attempted murder, was replaced as lead detective in South Africa's murder investigation of Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius.
(Themba Hadebe / Associated Press)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — It was a bad week for South Africa’s police force, coming to a head Thursday with an attempt at damage control: Commissioner Riah Phiyega dumped the lead detective in the murder investigation of Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius.

Like the O.J. Simpson murder trial that it already echoes for its celebrity, the Pistorius case has suddenly put sloppy police work in the spotlight.

Pistorius, a double amputee who competed in the London Olympic Games last year, is accused of premeditated murder in the Valentine’s Day death of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. He claims he shot her by mistake, believing her to be a burglar.


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Leading the investigation and testimony this week in Pistorius’ bail hearing was Det. Hilton Botha, who, it was revealed Wednesday, faces seven counts of attempted murder in an incident in which he and other officers shot at a commuter minibus in 2011. Even more embarrassing was that the prosecutor in the Pistorius case, Gerrie Nel, had no idea his star witness was facing criminal charges. Nor did police authorities, according to a police spokesman Thursday.

Meanwhile, in the city of Rustenburg this week, a commission of inquiry heard testimony that police gunned down platinum miners trying to surrender during an August strike; 34 were killed. A survivor, Siphethe Phatsha, told the commission Wednesday that while fleeing from police, his toe, injured by a police bullet, was impeding his flight. He stopped and hacked it off, local news reports said. He said he saw protesters shot after surrendering to police.

Officers in the loathed apartheid-era police force were largely a thuggish, brutal and racist lot, but democratic South Africa’s police force hasn’t won much public trust either. Police have variously been accused of rape, other assaults, corruption and incompetence.

But the case of Botha, the police detective, took the cake.

The international spotlight on Botha’s attempted murder charges, his fumbling testimony under cross-examination at the Pistorius hearing and the blundering police work had South Africans wailing with anguish Thursday on social media sites such as Twitter.

“I am so embarrassed with the [police] press conference,” said one, with the handle Ashannon. “Wild guess, but I don’t think Hilton Botha watches ‘CSI’ and ‘Law and Order,’” said another. “Lord, let me not rely on [the South African Police Service] to come into my home to find evidence of who killed my loved ones. I’d rather ask Darkwing duck,” said another, Nicholas Brown, referring to a Disney cartoon character.

Botha’s removal was the latest twist in the marathon bail hearing that has enthralled the world, with minute-by-minute Twitter updates.

The hearing focused attention on the country’s high rate of crime and domestic violence. But now attention is turning to the police force, often criticized for its embarrassing and sometimes sinister mistakes: mishandling evidence, misplacing firearms and losing charge sheets, causing cases to be abandoned.

At the end of 2011, a parliamentary committee heard that the contingency fund for paying civil claims against the police had reached $1.3 billion, or 20% of the force’s budget, mainly because of police criminality, negligence or misconduct.

Botha will be replaced in the Pistorius investigation by the man Phiyega described as “the most senior detective” on the force, Vinesh Moonoo. She said Moonoo would form a team of the best detectives.

In Botha’s criminal case, he and other policemen are accused of opening fire on a minibus carrying seven passengers in an effort to stop it. He has not been suspended.

In an interview with South Africa’s Eyewitness News, Botha said the officers did not see the passengers in the minibus. Botha and two other officers were arrested at the time but not charged. However, prosecutors decided early this month to file charges.

Botha looked uncomfortable and shaken in court Wednesday, as much of his evidence crumbled under a fierce barrage of questions from Pistorius’ attorney, Barry Roux, who argued Thursday that Botha had no credibility.

As the first detective on the scene after Steenkamp’s killing, he acknowledged on Wednesday several blunders: He failed to wear protective shoe covers when he entered Pistorius’ house, potentially disturbing evidence. He didn’t read the labels on boxes found in Pistorius’ bedroom that he named as “testosterone” but which the defense said was a legal herbal remedy. He waffled about the distance from Pistorius’ house to that of a key witness who claimed to have heard a quarrel.

Botha was also forced to make the crucial concession that he knew of no evidence that contradicted Pistorius’ version of events.

The bail hearing continues for a fourth day Friday, when a decision is expected.

If denied bail, Pistorius will spend months in jail awaiting trial. The prosecution argues that even if he believed a burglar was in the enclosed toilet, it was still murder to open fire and kill.

Making his final argument in the bail hearing, Roux said the state had failed to support its accusation of premeditated murder. He sought to have the severity of the charge against Pistorius downgraded to culpable homicide, making it more likely that he would be released on bail.

Nel, the prosecutor, disputed Pistorius’ statement that Steenkamp had gone to the bathroom at 3 a.m., causing the athlete to mistake her for a burglar and open fire through the toilet door. He questioned why she would have left her cellphone outside the toilet door on the bathroom floor, where it was found beside Pistorius’ cellphone.

“In the front of the shower, next to the gun, were two cellphones: the applicant’s and deceased’s. Why?” Nel said. “The uncontradicted, unchallenged evidence of the position of his cellphone and gun are the coup de grace for his case.”

The prosecution offered no information on whether Steenkamp received calls or messages on the night of the killing, because they hadn’t yet obtained phone records.

Hearing the bail application, Chief Magistrate Desmond Nair was critical of Botha on Thursday for failing to take urgent action to get the phone records, which could be crucial to the hearing.