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Defence seizes on police gaffes in Pistorius trial

Oscar Pistorius sits in the dock during his murder trial at a court in Pretoria, South Africa, Friday, March 14, 2014. Pistorius is charged with the shooting death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentines Day in 2013.

Phill Magakoe/AP

Follow The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent Geoffrey York as he tweets from Oscar Pistorius' murder trial.

An expensive luxury watch was stolen from the bedroom of Oscar Pistorius when police were in control of his house after he shot his girlfriend, his murder trial has heard.

The stolen watch is the latest revelation of police errors at the shooting scene – errors that the Pistorius defence has seized upon to discredit the prosecution of the famed Olympic hero.

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South Africa's police force has been plagued by problems of corruption and poor training, and those issues are now threatening to affect the outcome of the Pistorius murder trial.

Mr. Pistorius, who made history as the first double-amputee track athlete to compete against able-bodied athletes at the Olympics, is charged with killing his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, by shooting her through his bathroom door. He says he thought she was an intruder.

Within hours of the shooting on Valentine's Day last year, while a forensics team was working at the scene, a valuable watch was stolen from a blood-stained box of eight watches in the Pistorius bedroom, according to Giliam van Rensburg, the local police station commander who headed the team at the Pistorius house. The eight watches may have been worth up to $10,000 each, he testified on Friday.

He said he was "furious" at the theft and ordered a search of everyone at the scene, including their bags and cars, but failed to find it. His testimony implied that a police officer may have stolen the watch – a problem that is often reported at South African crime scenes.

Col. van Rensburg said he opened a theft docket in connection with the missing watch and ordered that the scene be tightly controlled. He said he had previously told a police photographer to keep an eye on the watches, because their high value would make them "tempting."

He described what he said when he realized the watch was missing: "I can't believe it. We were just there. How can this watch be gone?"

Defence lawyer Barry Roux later suggested that another watch, which had been on a cabinet, was also stolen from the scene.

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Other errors also emerged in Friday's testimony, in addition to several blunders that had already been disclosed. For example, Col. van Rensburg said, a ballistics expert was not wearing gloves when he picked up the 9mm pistol that Mr. Pistorius had used in the shooting.

He said he was "very angry" at the mishandling of the gun.

"What are you doing?" he asked the ballistics expert, who immediately apologized.

Col. van Rensburg said he removed the bullet-riddled bathroom door from the house and had it sealed in a bag and stored at his office for several days to ensure that nobody "tampered" with it.

It has previously been shown that police investigators failed to wear protective footwear at the shooting scene, left footmarks around the scene and failed to spot a bullet in the toilet bowl.

The chief police investigator at the scene, Hilton Botha, was removed from the case last year after admitting a series of blunders. On Friday, Mr. Roux accused Col. van Rensburg of deliberately expanding his testimony so that Mr. Botha would not need to be called as a witness at the trial.

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In his cross-examination, Mr. Roux noted several contradictions in statements by police officers at the Pistorius shooting scene. Asked about one statement that contradicted his own testimony, Col. van Rensburg muttered: "Amazing."

The trial, originally set down for three weeks, has been extended until April at least, and is widely expected to continue for months. One crucial issue that has not yet been discussed by any witness is the ballistics evidence from the Pistorius gun and the bullet holes in the door.

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More


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