South Africa

Did Police Tamper With Pistorius Crime Scene?

Day 10 of Oscar Pistorius’s murder trial saw the South African police slammed for crime-scene errors and confusing inconsistencies, giving a much-needed boost to the defense team, as the court saw bloody photos from the night of Reeva Steenkamp’s death.

03.14.14 7:05 PM ET

If you’d ask Colonel Schoombié Van Rensburg, former station commander of the Boschkop Police Station and the first policeman to arrive at the Pistorius crime scene, what he wants to do with his life, he’d probably tell you—as he did a packed courtroom on Friday—that he wants to be a sports coach.

It was a rather unsolicited response when advocate Barry Roux asked Van Rensburg why he retired from the South African Police Service (SAPS) after 29 years on the force. Van Rensburg dismissed allegations that he had turned in his badge last December following overwhelming pressure over the case’s poorly-handled crime scene. Many of those watching the trial brushed this last bit off, while others commented on the randomness of the statement and its lack of pertinence to the issue at hand, but the very nature of Van Rensburg’s answer—his hunched posture, the brief flash of a smile after hours of stone-faced testimony—were all indicative of a very human moment from a man who, up until then, had looked (for lack of better word) tired.

Working 30 years in a system that is understaffed, overworked, underpaid and rife with corruption would be taxing on anyone, particularly when the job involves a day-to-day battle between a deeply-flawed establishment on one hand and the myriad perpetrators who keepSouth Africa in the top tier of the highest crime ratesin the world on the other. It’s no secret that the SAPS is desperately lacking in manpower: The monthly ratio of police officers assigned to rape cases is five to 150, and that’s before you begin to factor in the daily murders, burglaries and gang altercations. But what’s more disturbing is that 1,448 of all serving police officers are convicted criminals themselves, according to a report published last year, and 157,470 that have allegedly been involved in some sort of criminal activity. That number presumably includes the two police commissioners that had been convicted and dismissed on corruption charges within a three-year period, and it almost definitely includes Hilton Botha, the case’s now infamous former lead detective, who was relieved of his position not only because he singlehandedly nearly sabotaged the entire case by trudging over the crime scene without following protocol, but because it was later revealed that he faces a few charges of his own, namely seven counts of attempted murder.

This is the other possible reason for Van Rensburg‘sseemingly demoralized demeanor. The past three days in the North Gauteng High Court have presented a merciless roasting of the forensic and investigative teams’ spectacularly embarrassing management of the crime scene, providing one of the more opportune moments for a very opportunistic Barry Roux to undermine the prosecution. The state’s decision not to call Botha as a witness (although this is still to be decided) has meant that Van Rensburg spent much of the day taking the brunt of Botha’s failings. He was also forced to explain numerous inconsistencies between the affidavits of Botha, CaptainMaluleke (another officer on the scene) and his own, like why Van Rensburg claimed to be the first officer to arrive when Maluleke insisted to have been present beforehand.

In fact, Van Rensburg had a lot of explaining to do: Why did the firearms expert handle Pistorius’s 9mm Taurus Parabellum without gloves? Why were pieces of the bathroom door missing after being taken away for analysis? Why had Van Rensburg opted to keep the bathroom door in his office instead of under regular police custody? What happened to the two watches, worth an estimated $5,000—$10,000, that went missing from Pistorius’s collection?

There were other salient questions that came to light during his testimony, for example, why were Steenkamp’s ‘plakkies’ (sandals) and overnight bag situated on the left-hand side of the bed if Pistorius he had slept on that side as he claimed in his statement? Why did the police find Steenkamp’s cellphone in the bathroom if she only got up briefly to go to toilet? And did Botha and the rest of the team actually cause any real damage to the investigation through their foolish albeit presumably unintentional actions?

The grilling followed two days of meticulous, often mind-numbingly tedious questioning from the defense so as to weed out irregularities and perhaps distract the court from what is quickly becoming a less-than-favorable perception of the former sports icon.

The only remotely gripping highlight of the past few days has been the collection of chilling images that have emerged from the crime scene—the blood-stained toilet, a bathroom wall riddled with projectiles, Pistorius with a battered and bloodied prosthetic leg, and a quick flash of the deceased as the projector operator accidentally stumbled through photos not intended to be viewed by the court attendees. All of these have added a visual dimension to a scene that all those watching have been attempting to construct in their heads, and despite the procedural missteps of both the forensic and police teams, we’re starting to see a narrative emerge that is going to bring us closer to finding out exactly what happened on that night.

Court resumes on Monday at 3:30am ET.