Johannesburg: Forensic experts working for Oscar Pistorius have visited the double-amputee Olympian's upscale villa where he killed his girlfriend to reconstruct the Valentines' Day crime scene, reattaching the bullet-marked toilet door through which the fatal shots were fired, police said Thursday.
Details of the defense's forensic specialists' work, released by The South African Police Service in response to questions from The Associated Press, underlines the crucial importance of the stall door as evidence at Pistorius' trial early next year, where the athlete faces a life sentence with a minimum of 25 years in prison if convicted of premeditated murder in Reeva Steenkamp's slaying.
The height of the bullet holes in the door and the trajectory of the four bullets fired by Pistorius from his licensed 9mm handgun into the cubicle should show if the disabled athlete was standing on his prosthetic limbs, as prosecutors maintain, or down on his stumps, as he says, and may help determine if he committed murder.
It is a stark difference in the two sides' versions of the Feb. 14 killing, though not the only one.
Charging Pistorius with premeditated murder soon after the shooting, prosecutors said the Olympic and Paralympic runner took the time to put on his artificial limbs before walking to the bathroom and firing shots through the door, hitting the blonde-haired law graduate three times. That shows intent, prosecutors say.
Pistorius says he did not have his prosthetics on and fired in self-defense while standing on his stumps, vulnerable and terrified of what he thought was a dangerous intruder and having no time to put his legs on.
If one version is proved true through forensic examination, it may not decide definitely if Pistorius shot with the intention to kill the woman he says he loved dearly, but it will surely boost one side's case and harm the other's in the mind of the judge who presides over the blockbuster trial in March and who will ultimately pronounce Pistorius innocent or guilty. South Africa does not have trial by jury.
"Just looking at the door evidence, it's (the door) going to be crucial and it's going to give the court an insight into what happened," JC de Klerk, a ballistics expert who had 24 years' experience with South Africa's police force in Pretoria before moving into private work told AP.
Pistorius' spokeswoman, Anneliese Burgess, said this week that his defense lawyers were working with a team of American forensic specialists brought in to help them prepare for the trial, but didn't give details of the hired experts' identities, areas of expertise or their work.
Both sides accept the importance of the door in deciphering what happened in the pre-dawn hours at Pistorius' home in Pretoria eight months ago now, particularly as there are no eye-witnesses to the shooting apart from Pistorius.
Police told AP that the door is "an important piece of evidence" and was released to Pistorius' forensic team from evidence storage Monday and taken to be examined at his Silverwoods estate villa in the presence of police officers.
"They (Pistorius' forensic team) had made prior arrangements with the South African Police Service investigating team for the visit," police said in their statement. "The purpose of this visit was to enable them to have access to the toilet door and to reconstruct the crime scene.
"The investigating officer and a ballistic expert from SAPS were present during the examination of the toilet door. They had controlled access to the toilet door to enable them to conduct their own independent examination."
It was the second time investigators acting for Pistorius had visited the scene accompanied by the police's team, the statement said. Pistorius reportedly used South African forensic examiners in the days immediately after the shooting for an initial examination.
Police also said Pistorius' villa in the upmarket gated estate in the eastern suburbs of the South African capital was "no longer a crime scene and was handed back to him long ago." They said no other physical evidence was examined Monday by Pistorius' experts, who apparently focused on the door and the toilet cubicle area.
In their case against the world-famous former poster image of disabled sport, prosecutors also say they have witnesses who will testify to hearing a woman screaming before the sound of gunshots, alleging that the couple may have fought before Pistorius, possibly enraged, killed his girlfriend.
While those witness accounts also will be revealing at trial, prosecutors reiterated Thursday their belief that Pistorius was standing on his prosthetics when he shot, showing he intended to kill the 29-year-old Steenkamp.
Prosecution spokesman Medupe Simasiku told AP that the state's assertion that Pistorius was on his plastic prosthetics "will be proven in court once the evidence is presented in court."