Can South Africa's justice system handle the Oscar Pistorius case?

The lead detective in the Oscar Pistorius murder case has been replaced. But can the South African police force recover from the mistakes made to date?

AP Photo/Themba Hadebe
Detective Hilton Botha sits inside the court witness box during the Oscar Pistorius bail hearing in Pretoria, South Africa. Botha is off the case, and now faces attempted murder charges himself over a 2011 shooting, police said Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013,

The lead investigator in the Oscar Pistorius murder case has been replaced. Why? Detective Hilton Botha himself now faces charges of attempted murder.

Yes, the detective investigating the murder of Reeve Steenkamp had attempted murder charges reinstated on Feb. 4 – some 10 days before the Pistorius case. Botha and two other police officers face seven counts of attempted murder in a 2011 shooting incident. The drunk policemen allegedly fired at a minibus they were trying to stop.

In an attempt to rebound from this setback, South Africa's National Police Commission Riah Phiyega said Thursday that a team of "highly skilled and experienced' detectives will now take over the investigation. South African Olympic runner Pistorius faces a premeditated murder charge for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva SteenKamp.

But this sudden removal of Botha, in addition to his testimony during three days of bail hearings, is raising questions not only about the quality of the prosecution's case but the effectiveness of South Africa's judicial system.

During Thursday's bail hearing, Pistorius's defense attorney Barry Roux cast doubt on the version of events given by Botha on previous days.  Prosecutors claimed Steenkamp had fled to the bathroom after a fight, fearing an enraged Pistorius. But Pistorius's version of events was that she had gone to the bathroom to relieve herself, and he didn't know it was her behind the door when he fired the gun four times. He thought she was an intruder.

On Thursday, Botha conceded that the angle of the shots was consistent with Pistorius's version of events.

As The Guardian live blog on the case reported:

"Defence lawyer Barry Roux said that Steenkamp’s bladder was empty when she died, indicating she had indeed got up to use the toilet. Usually at 3am you would not find an empty bladder, Roux said. Roux said Steenkamp’s autopsy showed no sign of defensive wounds or an assault. Botha said that was correct. Roux said that Steenkamp might have locked the toilet door to protect herself when she heard Pistorius shouting that there was a burglar. And he said that Botha could not say for sure that the shots were fired from 1.5m away and at the angle he described – and Botha admitted he couldn’t be sure about that. Roux also criticised Botha’s handling of the crime scene, saying the police had failed to find a bullet cartridge and that Botha had walked in to the house without protective feet covers on, contaminating the scene."

And there were other mistakes that came to light on Wednesday, as The Christian Science Monitor reported, "Police ... left a 9 mm slug from the barrage that killed Reeva Steenkamp inside a toilet and lost track of illegal ammunition found inside the house."

"Unfortunately there are too many instances of poor police work," Gerhard Kemp, a professor of criminal law at the University of Stellenbosch, told Reuters. "It's absolutely not CSI. It's a totally different world."

On Thursday, Desmond Nair, the magistrate in charge of the bail hearing, also raised questions about the competence of Botha's work, asking why the police hadn't acquired Steenkamp's phone records yet.

"Do you agree that [if] the deceased received SMSs or Phonecalls at 3 a.m., would it change the position of case?" the judge asked.

Pistorius's attroney, Roux pressed his advantage Thursday. "The poor quality of the evidence offered by investigative officer Botha exposed the disastrous shortcomings of the state's case," Roux said. "We cannot sit back and take comfort that he [Botha] is telling the truth."

Asked about Botha's court performance and handling of the investigation, National Police Commission Phiyega said South Africa's police force "can stand on its own" compared to others around the world, according to The Associated Press.

And Reuters reports:

With huge international media interest in the case against a global celebrity, many South Africans feel that apparent initial slip-ups by the police are hurting the country's image.

"Bring someone from outside to sort out this mess," said businessman Godfrey Baloyi. "The whole justice system needs an overhaul."

The bail hearing in Pretoria is scheduled to continue on Friday.

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