Pistorius case embarrasses South African police again

JOHANNESBURG Fri Feb 22, 2013 12:55am IST

Oscar Pistorius stands in the dock during a break in court proceedings at the Pretoria Magistrates court, February 21, 2013. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Oscar Pistorius stands in the dock during a break in court proceedings at the Pretoria Magistrates court, February 21, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - For the second time in six months, South Africa's police have won themselves global attention for all the wrong reasons.

The lead detective in the Oscar Pistorius murder investigation was taken off the case on Thursday after it emerged he was facing seven attempted murder charges for opening fire on a minibus full of passengers.

South African police have drawn criticism at home for their failure to bring down one of the world's highest crime rates, as well as perceptions that officers lack basic skills and that political clout, not ability, determines promotion.

They drew global outrage in August, when police gunned down 34 striking miners in a single day, reviving memories of grisly human rights abuses under apartheid.

The Pistorius bail trial has now added to the embarrassment, as the track star's defence team has uncovered a series of amateurish mistakes, forcing police to admit to running a sloppy investigation.

"Unfortunately there are too many instances of poor police work," said Gerhard Kemp, a professor of criminal law at the University of Stellenbosch.

"It's absolutely not CSI. It's a totally different world."

Warrant Officer Hilton Botha, a 24-year veteran of the force, was replaced as lead detective in the Pistorius case, after details of his involvement in the 2011 minibus shooting emerged.

The charges against Botha had been dropped but were reinstated on February 4 - 10 days before Pistorius shot girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in his Pretoria home.

Botha also withered under cross examination on Wednesday, when he was accused of contaminating the crime scene in Pistorius's house and backtracked on details like the distance of witnesses from the home when they heard shouts and shots.

"The poor quality of evidence presented by the chief investigating officer exposed disastrous shortcomings in the state's case," lead defence lawyer Barry Roux argued, capping a day that was widely seen as a victory for the 26-year-old Pistorius.

It was not immediately clear if Botha's actions would give Pistorius an edge in his bail hearing, which is expected to be concluded on Friday.

"No police force are a bunch of angels," said one Johannesburg-based senior lawyer who declined to be identified because the sensitivity of the case.

"I'm not entirely sure - in a case based on witnesses and forensics - how the conduct of the investigating officer, or even just the officer responding to the call, is entirely relevant to the credibility of Oscar Pistorius's statement to the court."

CORRUPTION

After apartheid ended in 1994, Nelson Mandela's ANC government tried to transform the police into an organisation capable of serving the community rather than oppressing it.

But the force is seen as a warren of corruption and inefficiency.

Top pathologists say forensic laboratories have backlogs of work of up to 10 years, due to a chronic shortage of skilled staff, according to local media reports.

Investigators are often overwhelmed by their caseloads.

"Police are so overburdened with work it really doesn't surprise me that they don't spend a whole of time making sure they send in the best guy, or plan the investigation carefully," Stellenbosch's Kemp said.

South Africa has one of the highest murder rates in the world and the highest number of reported rapes per capita of any Interpol member country.

Corruption hampers crimefighting.

The police commissioner is investigating claims by a police union that parts of a 464 million-rand DNA database machine were sold for scrap while about 500 million rand's worth of evidence has been stolen from narcotics labs in the province home to Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Former police commissioner Jackie Selebi was sentenced two years ago to 15 years in prison for accepting bribes from a convicted drug smuggler.

Last year President Jacob Zuma was forced to sack Selebi's successor, Bheki Cele, after the government's corruption watchdog raised concerns about the police chief's involvement in a questionable $100 million land deal.

After the end of apartheid, Nelson Mandela's "Rainbow Nation" was more successful in transforming its judicial system, abolishing the death penalty and turning once-draconian courts into a transparent system that has won plaudits from international and local legal experts.

Pistorius will probably go on trial for murder within months.

"We don't have juries, we have seasoned, hardened judges who have spent 10 years listening to every sob story on the planet," said the Johannesburg lawyer.

"I think there's more chance of justice being done than in a jury system. The calibre of our high court judges is still world class." (Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz; editing by Andrew Roche)

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