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Pistorius expert witness shoots down ballistics evidence

Publish date: 09 May 2014
Issue Number: 3507
Diary: Legalbrief Today
Category: Criminal

Oscar Pistorius' star defence witness claims it is impossible to determine the order of gunshots that killed Reeva Steenkamp, notes a report in The Times.

It says the sequence of the four shots that struck Steenkamp through the locked toilet door of Pistorius' luxury Silver Woods Estate home on Valentine's Day last year is vital to the state's case. The state claims Pistorius shot Steenkamp after an argument and she had screamed after she was first shot in the hip and arm. Pistorius, who claims he mistook Steenkamp for an intruder, has denied she had screamed. Yesterday, the defence called several experts to the witness stand in the Gauteng High Court (Pretoria). Ballistics specialist Thomas Wolmarans told the court it was not only impossible to determine the order that the shots hit Steenkamp, but it was impossible to know exactly where she had been standing when she was shot. This was because the state's ballistics expert, Captain Chris Mangena, had failed to take proper recordings or note the deflection of the bullets when measuring their trajectory, he said. 'This makes it impossible to determine with certainty where Steenkamp was standing when the shots were fired... and the sequence of the shots,' Wolmarans said. Mangena had ignored the bullets' deflections, he said. Full report in The Times

Pistorius' remorse came under the microscope yesterday when a surprise witness took to the stand to say just how broken the athlete was over the incident. A report on the IoL site notes that the second witness called to the stand for the defence was Yvette van Schalkwyk, a social worker with the Department of Social Development. Prosecutor Gerrie Nel said he couldn't see the relevance of bringing Van Schalkwyk to the stand. But defence Advocate Barry Roux argued that she was key in proving his client's sincerity. Judge Thokozile Masipa ruled that Van Schalkwyk was a relevant witness. Van Schalkwyk said she had first met the athlete the day after the shooting when she was called on to counsel him emotionally. The witness said she had recently read media reports that suggested Pistorius had received acting training for his case, and this had upset her greatly. She said this was what had caused her to come forward and testify on Pistorius' sincerity. From the first second she saw him, Van Schalkwyk said Pistorius appeared heartbroken, and was particularly upset about the damage he had done to Steenkamp's family and friends. Roux said the state put it to Pistorius while on the stand that he did not feel anything for Steenkamp or her family, only that he felt sorry for himself. Van Schalkwyk continued, saying Pistorius had cried 80% of the time they spent together. He told her of his plans for the future with Steenkamp. At the time of his bail application, Van Schalkwyk said that Pistorius had wept much of the time, and had even vomited twice during her visits. She admitted that prior to Pistorius she had never counselled a murder accused shortly after their respective incidents. Nel said it didn't make sense that the man who shot and killed his girlfriend was pining for her. Full IoL report

A defence medical expert speaking on Steenkamp's stomach contents was grilled by the state for only being able to provide speculative evidence. A report on the IoL site notes that Professor Aina Christina Lundgren, a medical expert and anaesthetist, was brought to testify on gastric emptying. Earlier in the trial, the state's own forensic experts deduced that the trace amounts of food in Reeva Steenkamp's stomach indicated she may have eaten about two hours prior to the shooting. This contradicts Pistorius' statement that he and Steenkamp were soundly asleep for hours before the incident. Lundgren told the court that, as an anaesthetist, she had to be able to analyse the amount of food her patients had eaten prior to their surgeries. She said she had analysed the report of the gastric contents of Steenkamp's stomach. She said certain fibres found in the stomach could have delayed the emptying, and Steenkamp's yoga exercises prior to sleeping could have done the same. Lundgren did say, however, that one could only speculate on exactly when the model had eaten, and that it would be impossible to know with so many potential delaying factors. Nel said that Lundgren had just provided a list of possible delaying factors, but this was not based on anything found in the record. Nel said Lundgren did not know what medication Steenkamp was taking, and her testimony was almost entirely speculation. Lundgren admitted she did not feel she had the ability to criticise the forensic pathologist's conclusions. Full report on the IoL site

The importance of establishing when Steenkamp last ate is underlined in a report on the News24 site, which makes the point that if she was up as late as two hours before she died, and this can be proven, it effectively destroys Pistorius' contention that he thought she was in bed at 03:00 when the shooting started. It introduces the spectre of some kind of argument or coming together that ended up with her death. Therefore, a large amount of time was spent on the science of gastric emptying. We learned that it is not an exact science at all, to the point that even though Saayman qualified his views to the court, Lundgren wouldn't specifically contradict anything he said. Nel took a novel approach to deciding this issue - he said that if 200ml of food were found in Steenkamp's stomach at 03:00, and considering that a normal digestion time could be up to eight hours, did this not say that she either ate later than 19:00, or must have eaten 4l at that time? The second theory was the least probable one, Lundgren said.Roux then used the same tactic to show that Nel was just speculating: you could say that if 200ml of food were found in Steenkamp's body, then she could have eaten 5 litres of food at 01:00. Full report on the News24 site