PRETORIA, South Africa – In the latest in a series of abrupt twists in the Oscar Pistorius homicide case, the South African police replaced the lead investigator Thursday after revelations that he was facing seven charges of attempted murder stemming from an episode in which police officers fired at a minivan.
The change was announced a day after the investigator, Detective Warrant Officer Hilton Botha, acknowledged several mistakes in police work in the Pistorius case. He conceded that, based on the existing evidence, he could not rule out the version of events presented by Pistorius, the double amputee track star accused of murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Feb. 14 by firing four shots through a locked bathroom door while she was on the other side.
After widespread news reports about the charges against Botha, Gerrie Nel, the prosecutor, said at the start of a hearing Thursday that he had just learned about them. The reports only compounded questions about Botha’s work on the Pistorius case.
While the prosecution has accused Pistorius, 26, of premeditated murder, Pistorius has said that he opened fire believing there was an intruder in his home, in a gated community in Pretoria, and that he had no intention of killing Steenkamp, 29, a model and law school graduate.
“The poor quality of evidence presented by chief investigating officer Botha exposed the disastrous shortcomings in the state’s case,” Pistorius’ lawyer, Barry Roux, said Thursday.
Nel tried to regain some of the ground lost on Wednesday, arguing that no matter who Pistorius thought was behind the bathroom door, the fact that he shot the person constituted murder.
“What we can’t forget is the applicant is charged with murdering a defenseless, innocent woman,” Nel said.
He repeatedly questioned Pistorius’ version of events. Pistorius has said that he did not realize Steenkamp was no longer in bed as he rose to check for an intruder, shouting to her to call the police.
“You want to protect her, but you don’t even look at her?” Nel said. “You don’t even ask, ‘Reeva, are you all right?”’ He asked how Pistorius could have retrieved the 9-mm pistol used in the shooting from under Steenkamp’s side of the bed without noticing that she was gone.
“His version is so improbable,” Nel said.
Earlier, the hearing in the Pistorius case dwelt on the absence of urine from Steenkamp’s bladder when she died, consistent, the defense said, with the theory that she had simply gone to the toilet and did not flee from Pistorius after an argument, as the prosecution asserts.
Roux, the defense lawyer, said she might have locked the bathroom door after hearing Pistorius call out that an intruder was in the house.
On Thursday, a police brigadier, Neville Malila, told reporters that Botha was scheduled to appear in court in May on the attempted murder charges in connection with an episode in which Botha and two other police officers fired at a minivan.
“Botha and two other policemen allegedly tried to stop a minibus taxi with seven people,” Malila said. “They fired shots.”
While the charges were initially dropped, “we were informed yesterday that the charges will be reinstated,” he said.
Botha was quoted in South African news reports as denying claims that he was drunk at the time of the shooting episode.
The national police commissioner, Riah Phiyega, said that a divisional police commissioner, Lt. Gen. Vinesh Moonoo, would be assigned to preside over “this very important investigation.”