Pistorius case puts S.African police in the dock

Posted at 02/21/13 10:23 AM

JOHANNESBURG - Oscar Pistorius's high-profile murder case has shone an unflattering light on South Africa's police force, experts said Wednesday, after the lead detective gave contradictory evidence in court and admitted to mistakes at the crime scene.

Hilton Botha, said to be an experienced police officer, came in for harsh criticism over his performance at Wednesday's bail hearing for the star athlete.

Called as a witness for the prosecution, he was expected to solidly nail points that would make it difficult for Pistorius, accused of fatally shooting his model girlfriend on Valentine's Day, to secure bail. Instead, his testimony cast doubt on the case against the star athlete.

Pistorius, 26, claims he shot 29-year-old Reeva Steenkamp after mistaking her for an intruder. He denies murdering her intentionally, as the prosecution aims to prove.

But Botha stumbled in his evidence, admitting investigators had walked over the crime scene without protective boots, and had overlooked a bullet that hit the toilet bowl -- later discovered by the defence's forensic team.

Botha also appeared to discredit one of the police's own witnesses -- who said they heard fighting in Pistorius's house on the night of the murder -- by telling the court the house was 600 meters (2000 feet) away. He later backtracked, saying it was in fact 300 meters away.

"This is a disaster for the trial and raises questions," said Frans Cronje of the South African Institute of Race Relations.

"They (police) have been put on trial and it's really bad... and surely a case of this dominance, you would have just drilled everyone to make sure nothing can possibly go wrong."

Widely seen as overwhelmed and corrupt, it has been an especially tough 12 months for South Africa's police force.

The force was accused of brutality after the Marikana mine tragedy in August where they shot 34 striking workers in the space of just a few minutes in a crackdown that shocked the world.

Yet some observers say it would be unfair to judge the nation's police competence based on the Pistorius bail hearing, arguing investigations are still under way.

"I think good lawyers can often make police seem foolish," said Antony Altbeker, author of Fruit of a Poisoned Tree, the true story of a forensic fiasco that a saw a murder suspect go free in 2007 after a sensational trial.

While the state is seen as having bungled the bail hearing, the police may have handled he investigation better than most murder cases in a country where an average of 42 murders are committed each day.

Despite being ranked among the world's most violent countries outside a war zone, crime has halved in South Africa in recent years -- thanks largely to a spike in private security firms.

South Africa's booming private security industry has grown to more than twice the size of the police force in 2010 -- with 390,000 registered private security officers compared to 150,000 police officers.

Cronje said the Pistorius case was receiving far more attention to detail than murder cases in the backstreets of township shacks where cases are often under-investigated.

"But from what we saw this afternoon, it wasn't the quality of policing we expect from a world class democracy," he said.

As the continent's wealthiest economy, South Africa's police force is fairly well resourced, but often seems to have problems with its command structure.

National police chief Riah Phiyega, appointed last year, is seen as lacking in police experience, while one of her predecessors spent time in jail for high-level graft.

Police spokespeople did not respond to requests for comments, but the National Prosecution Authority came to Botha's defence after his evidence was torn apart by Pistorius's lawyer.

"Well, it's normal for a cross examination to happen like that, but we believe he was strong enough to stand up," NPA spokesman Medupe S'Masiku said.

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