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Forensic analyst testifies at Pistorius trial with toilet door

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The Canadian Press
3/12/2014 9:16:44 AM
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PRETORIA, South Africa - Kneeling in court and swinging a cricket bat at Oscar Pistorius' toilet door, a South African forensic analyst demonstrated Wednesday how the double-amputee athlete may have bashed the door to get to the girlfriend he had just fatally shot.

Col. J.G. Vermeulen said he believed Pistorius was on his stumps when he swung his bat at the brown cubicle door.

The defence, on cross-examination of the policeman, insisted instead that Pistorius was wearing his prosthetic legs when hitting the door in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine's Day last year — and the marks from the bat on the door were lower down because the athlete swung with a bent back.

The intricate argument over whether Pistorius, the first amputee to run at the Olympics and now on trial for murder, was on his prosthetic limbs or not is important because it could match parts of his story that he accidentally shot Reeva Steenkamp. It could also show that he is lying.

The athlete has said he fearfully approached the bathroom on his stumps on Feb. 14 last year and shot Steenkamp by mistake, thinking she was an intruder hiding behind the door. According to his account, he then put on his prostheses and tried to kick down the locked toilet door, and battered it with a cricket bat to get to his girlfriend after realizing what he had done.

Prosecutors maintain he intentionally shot the 29-year-old model and have charged him with murder. He pleaded not guilty to all charges against him, which also include three firearm related counts.

The actual door that Pistorius shot through a year ago was erected in the Pretoria courtroom Wednesday. The bat he used that night was also used in the dramatic demonstrations. And there was even a toilet cubicle behind the door, recreated to the exact specifications of the small area of Pistorius' bathroom where Steenkamp was fatally shot, Vermeulen said. It included a toilet bowl.

The door also had what appeared to be white tags on it and, lower down and below the handle four bullet holes were clearly visible. Pistorius shot at Steenkamp four times through the door, hitting her in the hip, arm and head. One shot missed, the court has heard.

Vermeulen, who said he has 29 years' experience as a forensic analyst, said it was his belief that Pistorius was on his stumps — and against what the athlete says — when he hit the door.

"The marks is consistent with him being in a natural position without his prostheses," Vermeulen said.

The police analyst was repeatedly asked by both the prosecution and defence to demonstrate his assertions by swinging the bat at the door.

"It's quite low down on the door," Vermeulen testified about one of the marks he said were made by the bat. He said it was "not the normal position that I would expect from a mark from a cricket bat."

Defence lawyer Barry Roux countered that Pistorius hit the door with a "bent back" and that the low marks were consistent with such a body position. Roux also made it clear that the prosecution had now retracted initial claims that Pistorius was on his prosthetics when he fired the shots that killed Steenkamp. It is now accepted, Vermeulen said, that he was probably on his stumps.

That mistaken claim by prosecutors in the early part of the investigation was used by them to argue there was premeditation in the killing because they believed the disabled runner planned the killing while putting his prosthetics limbs on.

Earlier, Vermeulen also said a metal panel on the wall of the main bathroom in Pistorius' home had been damaged by being hit with a "hard" object, or after the object fell against it. The steel plate was new evidence. A photo of the damaged plate was shown.

Prosecutors say Pistorius intentionally shot Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model, after a fight.

Led by questions from prosecutor Gerrie Nel, Vermeulen removed his blazer and walked down from the witness stand and over to the door to demonstrate to the judge how he believes the door was hit by Pistorius last year.

Vermeulen said he was particularly interested in two specific marks on the door that he concluded were made by the bat and with the use of court photos and by kneeling down in court, Vermeulen showed the low position that the person could have been in when striking the door with the bat.

Pistorius faces a possible life sentence if convicted of murder for killing Steenkamp. The judge, who watched the demonstrations Wednesday, will ultimately decide on the verdict. There is no trial by jury in South Africa.

Associated Press writer Torchia reported from Johannesburg.



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