Oscar: Defence pathologist takes heat

Oscar Pistorius at the High Court in Pretoria. Photo: Themba Hadebe

Oscar Pistorius at the High Court in Pretoria. Photo: Themba Hadebe

Published Apr 7, 2014


Johannesburg - The defence in the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius has spent Monday morning trying to dismantle the forensic and ballistic evidence presented by the State.

Another version of Reeva Steenkamp's positioning in the bathroom during her final moments has also been presented.

After a week's adjournment, the defence brought their first witness to the stand at the High Court in Pretoria on Monday morning .

In his initial statement, defence advocate Barry Roux told the court his witnesses would focus on the night of the shooting, using experts who would speak on ballistics, forensics, lighting, Pistorius's disability and the cricket bat he used to break down his toilet cubicle door after shooting his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

The first witness was pathologist Dr Jan Botha, who chose not to be filmed during his testimony. It was explained that Botha had to be called early because of “family health reasons”.

Botha is a former chief state pathologist with decades of experience in both post-mortem and ballistic work.

Roux mentioned that the State's pathologist Gert Saayman had given evidence on Steenkamp's gastric emptying. He had determined Steenkamp had eaten within a few hours of the shooting, meaning Pistorius' version that he and his girlfriend had been asleep for several hours was incorrect.

Botha said, however, that such analysis was an inexact science, as one had to take into account the amount a deceased had eaten among other factors.


Saayman had earlierr presented medical journals to back up his argument. But Botha presented other textbook entries that stated the reliability of gastric emptying analysis was shaky at best, and it was difficult to determine the time of death through this alone.

He also said Steenkamp had almost no urine in her bladder, meaning she had likely voided it just prior to her death.

Botha was then asked about the ballistics reports presented by state expert, Captain Chris Mangena.

He said it was likely that the first shot that hit the deceased was when she was standing, leaning slightly forward and fairly close to the door.

This corroborated Mangena's testimony, who said the first shot hit her hip, pushing Steenkamp backwards so she fell on the magazine rack, propping her up. She was then hit by the other bullets that led to her other injuries and death.

According to Botha, the second shot was most likely the one that hit her right arm, causing abrasions on her chest.

The third shot was the one that injured Steenkamp's left hand, that ricocheted off the toilet wall.

It was only then, Botha said, that she fell down. The expert said it was as she was falling that she took the last shot to her head.

Botha said there was no blood inside the magazine rack, meaning it was unlikely she had been pushed up by the magazine rack, or sitting on it.

The effect of the shot to the arm would “be akin to a dramatic amputation”, Botha said.

Steenkamp would have had no control over her arm after it was shot.

Botha theorised that the marks on Steenkamp's back weren't from the shrapnel of a richocheting bullet, but rather the magazine rack she hit while falling down.

He said that once the first bullet had hit Steenkamp, she would have been in shock and become unstable, making only reflexive movements. If the shots were fired within four to five seconds, it was unlikely she could have called out, according to Botha. He did say, however, that if there was further time between shots, she could have screamed. He said that after the head wound, death would have followed swiftly.

Pistorius sat hunched over, shaking in the dock with a bucket between his legs, during Botha's testimony.

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel began his aggressive cross-examination by asking if Botha had consulted with the state pathologist, Reggie Perumal. Botha said he had not, but had seen his report, and had not contacted Perumal. Botha said Saayman's report was more detailed.

Nel said that Botha had only relied on post-mortem photographs, while Perumal had seen the body.

Nel accused Botha's analysis of not taking into account the solid door that had taken some of the force from the bullets.

The lawyer said Botha's analysis didn't address the “collar of abrasions” she sustained from the bullets passing through the door.

Botha was also unable to say which of the four bullet holes belonged to the bullet that hit Steenkamp in the hip.

“It's obvious I'm not a ballistician, I'm a pathologist,” said Botha, responding to Nel's claims that this was the most important part of his version on how Steenkamp was hit.

Botha said it was unlikely that Steenkamp had stayed in the same position after she was first hit.

Nel also got Botha to admit that had Steenkamp been hit in the right hip, it's likely she would have fallen backwards.

Nel also pointed out that Steenkamp must have raised her arm to cover her face, but Botha insisted this may have happened while she fell.

Nel said this did not make sense, but Botha was adamant that it didn't fall outside the realm of possibility.

After seeing images of tissue and hair fragments on the toilet seat, Botha also conceded that his analysis that there was no blood spatter on the back wall behind the toilet was incorrect.

Nel also argued that medical studies that provided “good” timelines on gastric emptying did exist.

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