Crime Scene

Bullets Expert Recounts Reeva Steenkamp’s Terrifying Final Moments

A bullets expert testified to the court that model Reeva Steenkamp cowered in a defensive position as athlete Oscar Pistorius fired four bullets through his bathroom door.

Pool photo by Leon Sadiki

Even if the wound to her head did not incapacitate her immediately, which is more than likely according to the pathologist report, Reeva Steenkamp would have bled out within minutes.

She had been facing the bathroom door when she was struck by three Black Talons, a kind of bullet that expands and mushrooms automatically when it “hits a moist target, like flesh” according to Captain Christiaan Mangena, the South African ballistics expert who analyzed the crime scene at Oscar Pistorius’s Pretoria home on Valentine’s day last year. The first bullet allegedly perforated her right hip, shattering the bone and forcing Steenkamp to double over onto the magazine rack standing beside the toilet. The second missed her and ricocheted off the cubicle wall, causing fragments to scatter across her back, which inflicted several bruises.

From then on, the order of shots fired becomes unclear, but what we do know is that by this time, Steenkamp was in what Mangena called “a defensive position”—that her arms were braced in an ‘X’ across her head—which explains why the webbing of her left-hand was lacerated as it intercepted the trajectory between the bullet and the right-hand side of her skull. “I’m of the opinion that after this wound was inflicted, my lady, she dropped immediately,” Mangena testified this week at the trial of Steenkamp’s boyfriend, the Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius.

The fourth blow fractured her humerus so severely that it caused what was described as “360 degree freedom of movement” and “arterial spurting,” which explains the serpentine blood trail down the staircase, according to blood-splatter expert Colonel Ian van der Nest. Evidence of blood splatter, broken hair pieces and tissue debris were all scattered across the toilet in such a way that one could only conclude that Steenkamp’s head must have collapsed against the toilet bowl. Her blonde hair and shorts were soaked in her blood.

This was the scene recreated by the two state witnesses who took the stand on Wednesday, marking the thirteenth day of the Oscar Pistorius murder trial in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria. Mangena and Van der Nest are both highly experienced and respected in their fields, both with 20 odd years of experience in the force. Van der Nest, who has presided over 1300 investigations, demonstrated almost immediately that he was just as thorough as Mangena and absolutely not to be messed with. He’s also known for his role in providing crucial evidence in the murder trial of former Apartheid leader Eugène Terre’Blanche.

These are important credentials to consider given the fact that the trial has hitherto been privy to some pretty egregious incompetency from the prosecution’s forensic and investigative teams, resulting in lackluster testimony that hasn’t appeared to make much headway in terms of guiding us closer towards the truth of what happened on February 14 last year.

For the first time since forensic questioning commenced, a palpable visual narrative of the shooting has started to emerge, and it boils down to key numbers:

Four bullets hit the bathroom door in the Olympian’s home, creating holes marked A, B, C and D, which stand at a height of 3 feet, 3.4 feet, 3.25 feet and 3.17 feet respectively. According to measurements taken at a company called Ergonomics Technologies in Johannesburg, Pistorius stands at a height of five feet without his prosthetics, and has an arm length of two feet when positioned as if aiming gun. Using a laser, steel rods, a tripod and Pistorius’s testimony as a benchmark, Captain Mangena agreed with Pistorius’s claim that he was on his stumps at the time of the shooting, suggesting that the bullets were fired at a downward angle of roughly 5 or 6 degrees. Mangena then took an identical firearm to the one used by Pistorius, loaded several Black Talon bullets into the chamber and fired shots into a replica door in order to establish the original positioning of the accused, which, according to the report, would have been somewhere between two feet and seven feet from the door.

Defense advocate Barry Roux’s attempts to poke holes in Mangena’s analysis were swiftly and repeatedly dismissed by Mangena, who refused to budge under cross-examination when questioned about Steenkamp’s position in the bathroom, or whether it would be possible that Pistorius fired using a ‘double-tap’ technique. Likewise, Roux entered a stalemate with Van der Nest, who sided with Mangena’s findings.

Probably the most anti-climatic moment of the day happened during the testimony of Colonel Mike Sales, a mobile-phone records analysis expert who had flown over to Apple headquarters in the U.S. earlier in the year in order to retrieve data information from phone and iPad records that had reportedly been deleted. Journalists had hoped that this data would provide explosive revelations that could strengthen speculation that there had been an altercation between Steenkamp and Pistorius, possibly over allegations that Steenkamp had received a text from South African rugby player and former boyfriend, Francois Hougaard. What was established, much to the embarrassment of Pistorius, is that somehow had surfed several pornographic websites on the accused’s Apple products the night before the shooting. Prosecutor Gerrie Nel requested a few details on exactly how the data was obtained and downloaded, while Roux questioned whether it was possible to determine exactly who viewed the websites. Sales was subsequently dismissed without further questioning.

Due to a South African public holiday on Friday, court was adjourned early and will resume on Monday, 24 March at 3:30am ET.