Earlier this month, a break in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial gave us the opportunity to analyze the testimony of expert witnesses who helped build the prosecution’s case against the former Olympian who is accused of murdering his live-in girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. Pistorius, who has testified that he killed Steenkamp when he mistakenly thought she was a home invader, presented two important defense expert witnesses this week to support his case.
Pistorius Defense Team Hires Private Ballistics Expert Witness
Last week, Pistorius presented the testimony of Tom Wolmarans, a private ballistics expert hired to discuss evidence that supports the defense’s theory of the crime. Mr. Wolmarans generally agreed with the prosecution’s ballistic expert, Captain Chris Mangena, about the sequence of the gunshots and the trajectories of the bullets. Wolmarans disagreed, however, on three key points:
- The position Ms. Steenkamp was in at the time of the shooting;
- The cause of injuries to her back;
- The position she was in when the fourth and fatal shot hit her.
Mr. Wolmarans testified that his investigation suggested that Ms. Steenkamp was reaching for the door at the time Pistorius opened fire – contradicting Captain Mangena’s claim that she was in a defensive position. Her body position is significant because a defensive stance suggests the couple was arguing while a position of reaching for the door could support Pistorius’ account that he did not know who was behind the bathroom door. Wolmarans also explained that the cause of Ms. Steenkamp’s back injury could have been the result of falling on a magazine rack rather than being hit by bullet ricochet while on the floor – suggesting she did not have time to cower on the floor in a defensive position during the shooting. Finally, Mr. Wolmarans suggested that the fourth and final bullet hit Ms. Steenkamp as she was falling, further supporting his claim that the shots had been fired in rapid succession with each hitting her before she fell to the floor.
The distinctions between Mr. Wolmaran’s and Captain Mangena’s testimony are, Pistorius argues, important because the defense expert witness presented evidence that Ms. Steenkamp was not in a position to defend herself and was fatally wounded before having the opportunity to cry out. Each point lends support to Pistorius’ claim that he heard an unfamiliar noise in his bathroom and opened fire without having the opportunity to process that the individual inside was his girlfriend.
Anesthetist Expert Witness Testifies in Pistorius Trial
During the prosecution’s case, pathologist Dr. Gert Saayman testified that Ms. Steenkamp had eaten at 1 AM on the night of the shooting – contradicting Pistorius’ claim that the two were in bed by 10 PM. The timing of Ms. Steenkamp’s last meal could be significant because if she and Pistorius were not asleep by 10, then his claim that he thought she was sleeping next to him at the time of the shooting loses credibility. Prosecutor Gerrie Nel argued that the two were awake and arguing late into the evening, leading to Pistorius shooting her through the bathroom door.
Pistorius called Professor Aina Christina Lundgren as an anesthetist expert witness to question the certainty of Dr. Saayman’s conclusion regarding Steenkamp’s last meal. Professor Lundgren testified that the methodology employed by Dr. Saayman could not, with certainty, determine that Ms. Steenkamp had eaten at 1 AM. Dr. Lundgren pointed out that a number of factors could call Saayman’s timeline into question because the rate of digestion cannot be accurately determined. Professor Lundgren’s claim echoes a similar criticism of the prosecution’s digestive estimation made by defense expert pathologist Dr. Jan Botha earlier in the trial.
Pistorius’ defense team rebounded from the near disaster it created by the rambling and unqualified forensic expert testimony of Roger Dixon earlier in the trial by presenting two qualified experts to attack specific points made by Prosecutor Nel. The prosecution’s attack on Pistorius’ story relied heavily on the position of Ms. Steenkamp’s body before and during the shooting and the fact that the Olympian’s timeline was called into question by the contents of her stomach. Mr. Pistorius’ expert witnesses were able to present credible explanations based on their investigation of the evening, and lend support to his account of the tragic events that led to Ms. Steenkamp’s death.