During the Oscar Pistorius trial today, the damaged toilet door that the murder-accused Olympian runner shot through, then tried to beat down with a cricket bat on Valentine’s Day last year, was the center of attention in the Pretoria High Court today. Reassembled in a frame alongside 1 meter or 3.2 ft-high walls configured to the shape and size of the room in which Reeva Steenkamp died, the door was used extensively during examination and cross-examination of the state’s first forensic witness, Colonel Johan Vermeulen. Part of the state’s murder evidence, the door bears testimony to the events that unfolded last February, with four bullet holes and a number of other marks, chips and indentations clearly visible.
Vermeulen, whose evidence began on Tuesday, has completed more than 14,000 forensic investigations in the past 29 years. He has also given evidence in court many times. At the Oscar Pistorius trial today he spoke about damage to the toilet door that is said to have been caused by a cricket bat that the accused has stated he used to try to bash the door down after he realized he had shot his girlfriend.
Pistorius is charged with the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp at his luxurious Pretoria home in the early hours of February 14 last year. He is also charged with illegally firing guns in two incidents, one in a restaurant and the other through the sunroof of a car, and another of illegal possession of a firearm and ammunition. While he has not contested the fact that he killed Steenkamp by shooting through his toilet door, he has pleaded not guilty to all charges. He maintains that he believed somebody had broken into his home and this is the person he thought he was shooting.
The court was all a-twitter – literally – when journalists discovered that the murder-door was in court today. This followed a ruling on Monday by presiding Judge Thokozile Masipa that journalists were not permitted to use Twitter to report events from the courtroom live. Yesterday after reportedly (according to the judge herself) being told how Twitter works, she said that both blogging and tweeting would be allowed from court. However there is still a clampdown in terms of unwilling “private” witnesses being photographed or even Internet photographs of them being published until after the trial.
The door, as well as the cricket bat that Pistorius allegedly used to break down the door after he had killed Steenkamp, brought a certain reality to the courtroom. Adding to this is a toilet that is positioned in the replica room exactly where it was in the Pistorius death room.
Vermeulen, a top South African forensic expert, was questioned in-depth about his examination of the door, and was asked by both the state prosecutor Gerrie Nel and defense advocate Barry Roux to show how he believed damage was caused to the door with a cricket bat. The cricket bat used by Pistorius was part of today’s evidence, and it was in the hands of Vermeulen. However the rubber handle was missing because, as Vermeulen explained, it had been taken away for fingerprinting. Signatures on the bat were highly visible, and during the proceedings, former South African (Protea) Herschelle Gibbs tweeted that he recognized his signature on the bat.
Vermeulen demonstrated with the bat how somebody might have tried to smash the door, which was in the court for today’s hearing. There has been a lot of talk during the Oscar Pistorius trial so far about the unpainted meranti door, but the climax today, for those watching the live coverage on television (a first in South Africa) was to see this larger-than-life court exhibit. There were clearly four bullet holes in the door, three of which are grouped about 25 cm (less than an inch) below the door handle, and the fourth a little lower, to the right.
Pistorius has maintained from the start (in affidavits to the court) that he was not wearing his prosthetic legs when the shots were fired. However evidence led today did not focus on the gunshots, but rather on the damage inflicted to the door by the cricket bat.
Vermeulen said that he had found the marks on the toilet door to be consistent with blows from the cricket bat the accused said he had used to try to break down the door. However, when the point at which he would have hit the door was measured, it was considerably higher than the point of impact on the door. This indicated that Pistorius was probably on his stumps when he tried to beat the door down. In his affidavit directly after the killing, Pistorius had stated that he was wearing his prosthetic legs at this time.
During cross-examination Vermeulen was asked by Roux to get on his knees and lift his feet as if he was on stumps. Vermeulen found this, and several other positions “unnatural” and pointed out that he was unbalanced because he had never had experience being with people without legs, and had never himself operated without legs. He refused to continue the experiment on these grounds, stating that Pistorius grew up without legs. Additionally, he maintained that if Pistorius had been able to shoot through the toilet door without his prosthetic legs, he would have been able to strike the door with the cricket bat without them.
There was also evidence that splinters of wood from the door were missing and that a footprint on the door was wiped clean. An additional mark on the door, missed by Vermeulen during his examination last year, was pointed out by Roux who maintained that it was the result of Pistorius trying to kick the door down with his prosthetic leg. There has not yet been evidence in court during the Oscar Pistorius trial that indicates whether the bullet holes in the door were made before or after the damage made by the cricket bat. Vermeulen will be back in the witness-box tomorrow.
By Penny Swift