A damning portrait of South African police, contaminating evidence and stealing from the citizens they are supposed to protect, was painted at the trial of Oscar Pistorius on Friday, raising doubts over the credibility of the murder case against him.
Two luxury wristwatches worth thousands of dollars went missing from the Paralympic athlete’s bedroom on the day that he was arrested for the killing of his girlfriend, according to Pistorius’ defense team. A former police colonel admitted in court that one of the watches had been stolen virtually from under his nose.
The boost for the defense came after the court was shown the first photographs taken of Pistorius in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Bare-chested and looking shellshocked, he was standing on blood-stained prosthetic legs and wearing shorts covered in blood.
The “blade runner” denies murder, contending that he shot Reeva Steenkamp through a locked toilet door because he thought she was an intruder.
Former police colonel Schoombie van Rensburg, who was among the first on the scene of the incident on Valentine’s Day last year, testified that experts examined a blood-spattered box containing eight wristwatches, worth an estimated US$5,000 to US$10,000, and that one went missing even after he warned his officers against theft.
Defense counsel Barry Roux put it to Van Rensburg that an additional watch that had been lying on top of a cabinet was also missing.
The former station commander denied knowledge of a second theft.
Van Rensburg, who retired in December last year, said he later found another investigator mishandling the 9mm pistol that was used to kill Steenkamp and discarded on a blood-soaked bathroom mat.
“At that particular moment the ballistics expert was handling the firearm without gloves,” Van Rensburg told the court.
“I was busy talking on my cellphone when I heard the firearm had been cocked. I stopped talking and said: ‘What are you doing?’ He said sorry and put the magazine back in the firearm… So immediately I was very angry,” Van Rensburg added.
The second week of the trial ended with the prosecution confessing that the digital camera used to take photographs of the scene had labelled them with the wrong date and wrong year, prompting a scornful aside from Pistorius to his uncle.
Under the world’s gaze, the trial threatens to become the latest body blow to the reputation of the South African police.
This month alone an official inquiry into the 2012 Marikana massacre heard that some mineworkers were shot dead by officers “execution-style” as they surrendered with hands in the air, while police in Cape Town were caught on video kicking and punching a naked Nigerian man.