POSTED: Thursday, February 21, 2013 - 7:04am
UPDATED: Thursday, February 21, 2013 - 12:23pm
The bail hearing for Oscar Pistorius wheeled toward the bizarre Thursday with the revelation that the lead investigator in the case against the famous Olympic sprinter is facing attempted murder charges.
The South African Police Service pulled lead investigator Hilton Botha from the case after prosecutors reinstated attempted murder charges against him in a 2011 incident. Botha is accused of seven counts of attempted murder in an incident in which he and other officers allegedly chased and fired on a minibus full of people while drunk.
Prosecutors are trying to keep Pistorius jailed pending his trial on a charge of premeditated murder in the February 14 shooting death of his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, 29. The hearing ended Thursday with no decision on bail and is scheduled to resume Friday.
It's unclear what impact the accusation involving Botha will have on the case against Pistorius, the acclaimed Paralympic and Olympic sprinter known for running on prosthetic carbon fiber blades in place of legs amputated when he was a child.
Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega announced in a news conference that Botha would be replaced by the department's most senior detective, Vinesh Moonoo.
Bulelwa Makeke, the spokeswoman for South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority, said before the announcement that even if Botha remained in charge of the case, the accusations would be little more than a "speed bump."
"But the important issue here is that the state was not relying on just his oral testimony, it's really relying more on forensics and that real hard evidence that came out of the scene," Makeke said.
Pistorius, 26, is accused of the premeditated murder of Steenkamp after, according to prosecutors, a heated argument in the early morning hours of Valentine's Day.
The sprinter, however, says he thought an intruder was hiding in a toilet room inside the bathroom of his Pretoria home. He says he fired into the room in a fit of terror before realizing the person inside was Steenkamp.
In arguments capping the three-day bail hearing, Prosecutor Gerrie Nel said Pistorius' defense team has failed to explain why investigators found two cell phones and the gun believed used in the shooting in front of the shower.
That goes to the prosecution claim that Steenkamp didn't merely get up to relieve herself in the middle of the night, but in fact had locked herself in the bathroom with her cell phone to protect herself from Pistorius.
Early in the prosecution statement, Magistrate Desmond Nair interrupted to ask if it is possible that Pistorius could have repositioned the phones and gun after the killing.
Nel also said Pistorius has shown a lack of realization of what he has done and cast doubt on Pistorius' claims that one of the reasons for his extreme fear that night was that he had been a victim of burglary and violent crime in the past.
Where, Nel asked, are the court cases from those incidents? Why, Nel asked, didn't Pistorius whisper to Steenkamp or try to wake her up when he heard noises?
During his argument, defense attorney Barry Roux told Nair that the prosecution's case had suffered a monumental collapse.
He said Botha acknowledged that investigators had failed to collect any evidence that counters Pistorius' argument that he mistakenly shot Steenkamp. Realizing what he had done, Pistorius says, he broke down the door to the toilet, scooped up the mortally wounded woman and ran downstairs in a vain attempt to rush her to the hospital.
Roux has also questioned police claims that a witness who lived at least 300 meters (328 yards) from Pistorius' home had heard a raging argument coming from the home.
He also blasted how police investigated the crime scene, saying his forensic investigators had found a spent bullet in the toilet that police had missed. He also said officers had trooped through the home without wearing foot covers and had failed to properly investigate and catalog evidence found there, including ammunition and a bottle of what Botha first called testosterone before backtracking.
Roux said the substance is an herbal remedy.
Authorities have argued that ballistic evidence shows Pistorius had to intentionally target the toilet to strike Steenkamp, and that evidence shows he was standing on his prosthetic legs when he shot through the bathroom door.
Pistorius said in his statement that when he shot through the door, he was feeling vulnerable to an intruder because he was not wearing his legs and had limited mobility.
Prosecutors are fighting bail because they worry that Pistorius will disappear if he's released, and they say that he has a history of police encounters that suggest he is a threat to public safety.
Pistorius has pledged to stay in South Africa and fight the charges if released, adding that he's unlikely to escape notice as a well-known athlete who walks on prosthetic legs.
Anger about detention
Prosecution arguments began late Thursday afternoon, and Nair did not rule on bail for Pistorius, who has been held since his arrest last week in a police station holding cell.
Nel is expected to finish arguments Friday morning, followed by a defense rebuttal and, finally, a decision on bail by Nair.
That arrangement angered the women's branch of South Africa's ruling party, which accused authorities of giving Pistorius special treatment by holding him at the police station instead of a South African prison where it says suspects awaiting trial or bond are more typically held.
"If there is some special circumstance that permits this, authorities must share this with the public as they are setting a bad precedent," the statement from the African National Congress Women's League said. "All should be treated equally before the law no matter your standing in society."
Nike pulls away from sprinter
Also Thursday, Nike announced it had suspended its contract with Pistorius.
"We believe Oscar Pistorius should be afforded due process and we will continue to monitor the situation closely," the sports apparel company said in a prepared statement.
Nike had already pulled a TV ad featuring the sports star.
Steenkamp's half-brother Adam Steenkamp said that he hopes Pistorius remains jailed.
"Under the circumstances, I think it would be rather strange if someone who quite clearly did something like this were to get bail," he said. "It wouldn't make sense to me, but I don't know whether that would be right or wrong."
He said the family was "doing OK."
"We are all holding up very well considering the circumstances," he said.