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Pistorius was on stumps, says expert

Emsie Ferreira

A forensic expert has disputed Oscar Pistorius's claim that he was wearing his prosthetic legs when he broke down a door to reach Reeva Steenkamp.

Police forensic expert Colonel Johannes Vermeulen hits the door with a cricket bat in a re-enactment of how Oscar Pistorius broke down the door of the toilet. (AFP)

A forensic expert on Wednesday disputed Oscar Pistorius's claim that he was wearing his prosthetic legs when he broke down a locked door to reach his dying girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

Testifying in Pistorius's murder trial, police Colonel Johannes Vermeulen said the disabled athlete was on his stumps both when he shot at the door and when he battered it down with a cricket bat.

"[I] mentioned that marks on the door are actually consistent with him not having his legs on and I suspect it must be similar to the height that he was when he fired the first shots," said Vermeulen.

He confirmed that the door, which was displayed in court, was dented and cleaved by Pistorius's cricket bat – exhibit one in the trial.

At prosecutor Gerrie Nel's request, Vermeulen demonstrated the angle at which he had to swing the bat to strike the door where it bore a dent made on the night of the shooting. The mark was 1.53m from the bottom of the door of the toilet cubicle in Pistorius's home in which Steenkamp was shot dead.

"It's quite an uncomfortable position," Vermeulen commented, as he stooped to wield the bat at the required angle.

Calling for a tape measure, Nel had it noted that while he held this position Vermeulen's shoulders were only about 1.25m from the court room floor.

Take the stand
Vermeulen was the first policeman to take the stand since Pistorius went on trial in the high court in Pretoria last week and pleaded not guilty to the premeditated murder of the model he dated for three months. 

His testimony appeared to take Pistorius's defence by surprise, and advocate Barry Roux complained that he felt "ambushed".

In cross-examination Roux asked why his conclusion that Pistorius was not wearing his prostheses was not included in his formal forensic report. Vermeulen said he was only asked to determine if the marks on the door were indeed made by the bat and had mentioned his further observations to the prosecution in passing.

"I was not asked to determine whether Mr Pistorius was wearing his prosthetics or not and that is why it is not in my evidence-in-chief."

His observation about the height of the marks was made as an aside to Nel in a meeting in November "not knowing that it was an issue".

"And then Mr Nel pointed out to me that there is discrepancy with his [Pistorius's] statement."

Roux failed to budge Vermeulen from his insistence that Pistorius was on his stumps, or to bring him to agree that another mark on the door was caused by his client kicking it. "There is no evidence for me that he actually kicked the door apart from his version," the forensics expert with 29 years experience said.

'Even less support'
At one point, Roux asked him to return to the door, kneel, lift his feet off the ground and then swing the bat to simulate what he claimed Pistorius did. "Mr Pistorius has even less support," he remarked when Vermeulen said it was an awkward position. 

However Vermeulen said Pistorius had managed to balance on his stumps while firing a gun at the door, and given how the double amputee had adapted to his disability, it could be assumed that he would have been able to balance while swinging a cricket bat.

Vermeulen did however confirm that bullets struck the door before the cricket bat did, and this matches Pistorius's statement that he fired into the door and then bashed it down.

A crack is seen entering the right side of one of the four bullet holes and then leaving it on the left side. "If it was the other way the crack would have gone straight down."

Predictably, Roux asked a barrage of questions about the police's handling of evidence, noting that photographs in court showed a footprint on the wooden door which appeared to have been made by a policeman's shoe.

Vermeulen conceded this was so, but said he was not called to Pistorius's home immediately and only received the door on March 8 last year, after Steenkamp was shot in the early hours of Valentine's Day and Pistorius was released on bail.

Testimony
At his bail hearing, Pistorius testified that he was wearing his prostheses when he forced open the toilet door after fatally shooting Steenkamp through it. He said when he opened fire, he was on his stumps and scared, thinking that there was an intruder hiding inside the cubicle. 

He said he then realised that Steenkamp was not in bed and after putting on his prostheses, first tried to kick open the door, then swung at it with the cricket bat. "I put on my prosthetic legs, ran back to the bathroom and tried to kick the toilet door open," he said at the time.

"I think I must then have turned on the lights. I went back into the bedroom and grabbed my cricket bat to bash open the toilet door."

Pistorius's neighbours have testified that they heard a woman's terrified screams ring out from the direction of his home, followed by rapid gunfire.

The trial will resume on Thursday with further questioning of Vermeulen. – Sapa

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