Tragic Accident Or Premeditated Murder? Pistorius Case Transfixes South Africa

A bail hearing in South Africa for Paralympic star and accused murderer Oscar Pistorius had members of the gallery gasping. Host Melissa Block talks with journalist Andrew Harding about a wild day of testimony and challenges.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Was it a tragic accident or premeditated murder? Those two contradictory versions of events were presented in court yesterday and today in a case that has transfixed South Africa. The double amputee track star Oscar Pistorius is charged with shooting and killing his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, in the middle of the night on Valentine's Day. Pistorius has said he thought he was firing on an intruder. The BBC's Andrew Harding was in the Pretoria courtroom for the testimony, and he joins me now. Andrew, welcome to the program.

ANDREW HARDING: Hi.

BLOCK: There was a South African detective who testified today and said no way was this self-defense. What's the evidence for that as the prosecution laid it out?

HARDING: That's right. That was Hilton Botha, who was the first detective on the scene, about an hour after Pistorius had shot dead his girlfriend. Now, he was taken through his version of events by the prosecution in some detail.

He said he'd found evidence at the house that there were offshore bank accounts that Pistorius owned, and he thought that meant that Oscar Pistorius might be a flight risk if he were granted bail. He also said he'd got witness statements of neighbors who'd heard shouting, a violent argument in the hour leading up to the shooting. There was also a great deal of discussion about where exactly Oscar Pistorius was standing in the bathroom when he shot through the toilet door. And the detective made it clear that his conclusion from all this evidence was that Oscar Pistorius had deliberately shot and killed his girlfriend.

BLOCK: And it sounds like that same detective got into some trouble under a withering cross-examination by Pistorius' defense attorney.

HARDING: It was something to observe. It was really quite devastating, the transformation as this defense lawyer absolutely steamed into this local policeman and bit by bit really pulled apart a huge amount of his evidence to the extent to which that at the end of probably more than an hour of cross-examination, Hilton Botha essentially conceded that there was no evidence as yet in his possession that in any way contradicted Oscar Pistorius' own version of events. And he basically conceded that he had extrapolated far too much from the limited information he had.

It was a devastating counterattack, if you like, by the defense. And amongst things that came up were the fact that one witness who reported arguments and noise from Oscar Pistorius' house lived possibly as far as 600 meters away and so could not identify exactly who was speaking or where.

BLOCK: There was another interesting development in court today, and that's that police said they found testosterone and needles in Oscar Pistorius' house.

HARDING: Yes. And that was very much in the context of the policeman saying that he believes Pistorius was guilty and that presumably it was some sort of drug-fueled reaction that prompted this rage that may have led to him killing his girlfriend deliberately.

Now, very interestingly, the defense immediately challenged that and said, yes, there were items in the room, as you state, but the bottles simply began with the words testoste or testo and then went on to a very long, very different word. And this was, in fact, a harmless legal herbal remedy used by many athletes. Now, shortly after the court had closed for the day, the state prosecutors issued a statement saying they had been wrong to describe it as testosterone.

BLOCK: Hmm. Well, the issue for this hearing is whether Oscar Pistorius will be released on bail if he's a flight risk before the trial. Is there any indication from the magistrate as to how he's leaning on that?

HARDING: There was quite a big hint right at the end when the policeman was confirming that he believed that Pistorius was a potential risk and that he should not be granted bail. The magistrate intervened and said are you telling me that here we have a gold medal-winning, world-famous athlete who has the opportunity to come to court and clear his name and perhaps resume his career, a man who is recognizable everywhere, a man who has visible ways of recognizing who he is, you think this man would be a flight risk?

And when the policeman replied it's possible, there were guffaws of laughter from Oscar Pistorius' family. And the tone in which the magistrate asked that question suggested to me very clearly that the magistrate himself found the idea rather absurd.

BLOCK: That's BBC's Andrew Harding speaking with us from Pretoria. Andrew, thanks very much.

HARDING: Thank you.

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