Cellphone vital link in Oscar murder case

By SHAUN SMILLIE AND PATRICK HLAHLA Time of article published Feb 26, 2013

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Pretoria - Reeva Steenkamp’s last moments alive could have been tracked and it is this that might decide the case against Oscar Pistorius.

That tracker is her cellphone that could provide such detailed movements that forensic investigators might even be able to follow her movements from room to room in the hours and minutes before her death.

Steenkamp was shot and killed at her boyfriend, Paralympian Oscar Pistorius’s home at the estate in the early hours of February 14. Pistorius has admitted that he pulled the trigger, and he will stand trial later this year.

It will not be the first time a cellphone will provide the missing link in a murder investigation.

Such information was the deciding factor in another South African high profile case, that of the murder of Taliep Petersen.

“It would be possible through good cellphone research to determine if she used the phone in the toilet or in the bedroom, and if that phone moved from room to room,” said Hennie Lochner, a senior researcher in the department of police practice at Unisa.

These locations will depend on the cellphone towers in the area and, said Lochner. It will depend on an investigator spending hours at the crime scene making test calls using an independent cellphone.

It was such precise cellphone geo-location that helped convict Najwa Petersen of the murder of her well-known playwright husband, Taliep.

During the court case, Petersen claimed that on the night of her husband’s murder she had taken a sedative and had gone to sleep.

But through forensic examination, investigators were able to establish that on the night of the murder she had made calls first from the main bedroom, then from the room she slept in and then again from the main bedroom over a period of just over three hours. The calls she had made had been to one of the accused Fahiem “Piele” Hendricks. The movements of other three accused, Abdoer Emjedi, Waheed Hassen and Jefferson Snyders, were also tracked by cellphone that night.

“I think big things are going to come out when the investigators examine the cellphones,” said Lochner of the Pistorius case.

During Pistorius’s bail hearing, the court heard how two cellphones belonging to Pistorius and Steenkamp where found in the bathroom, alongsidethe alleged murder weapon.

It is not just location that cellphones might provide, there is also communication, either through calls made or SMSes. This kind of information, said Lochner can be obtained either through the handset or from data obtained from the service provider. “A handset can provide you with information like SMSes, calls made, or calls received,” explained Lochner.

But getting access to a handset requires a search warrant or a subpoena.

Information from a service provider, like a history of calls made and received, requires a section 205 of the Criminal Procedures Act, in which a magistrate or high court judge has to grant access.

“This process can take between three weeks to a year,” said Lochner.

“If Steenkamp did send an SMS on the night of her murder, police would have to subpoena the person who received the message. “An SMS can be altered on the handset,” Lochner said.

However, to make sure everything stands up in court, investigators have to be careful and follow a strict chain of evidence, said Lochner.

Meanwhile, Pistorius on Monday had his first session with Correctional Services probation officers as part of his bail conditions. While scores of journalists and photographers waited outside the Brooklyn police station, the double amputee arrived at the Correctional Services offices at the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court just after 10.15am.

Dressed in jeans and a grey hood, Pistorius – who was escorted by security officers to the third floor offices – was accompanied by an unidentified man who first went into the office with Pistorius and later waited in the corridor.

Pistorius, who was granted bail of R1 million by Pretoria chief magistrate Desmond Nair last Friday, left the offices at about 12.55pm.

According to sources, Pistorius – who is currently staying at his uncle’s house in Waterkloof – will now be visited at home by Correctional Services officials.

The investigating officer, Lieutenant-General Vineshkumar Moonoo, will visit or phone him at any time he feels it is necessary.

He will be subject to random tests to ascertain his compliance and should he be charged with an offence related to violence against women and children, he will be arrested at once.

A family spokeswoman confirmed that Pistorius’s bail conditions also included that he report to authorities on Mondays and Fridays between 7am and 1pm.

Pistorius is expected back in court on June 4.

Pretoria News

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