Forensics will be key in Pistorius case

With the removal on Thursday of the lead investigator, Hilton Botha and accusations from Pistorius’s defence that there are “disastrous shortcomings in the state’s case” due to poor protocols in evidence gathering. It seems forensics will be key in determining whether Oscar Pistorius is found guilty of premeditated murder.

The controversial olympic athlete, was arrested after his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp was shot dead at his home in Pretoria, South Africa. Pistorius’s defence statement is that he thought there was an intruder in his bathroom on 14 February. He states that he grabbed his pistol and fired into the door of a toilet within the bathroom, only to discover that the person inside was his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. Steenkamp had three bullet wounds in her body – one on the right side of her head above her ear, one on her right arm and one on her hip.

The journal New Scientist interviewed a number of experts at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences meeting in Washington DC this week to comment on how crime scene analysis is likely to proceed at Pistorius’s home. “Ballistics specialists will be key to this case,” says George Hime of the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner Department, Florida. “There’ll also be forensic pathologists involved, blood-spatter experts and crime scene investigators to put it all together.”

Investigators can use bullet entry wounds to determine exactly where a shooter was when a bullet is fired. “They can determine the bullet’s angle, direction, and distance it was fired from,” says Hime. “These facts are all vital to this case because they allow you to determine exactly where Pistorius was when the shots were fired.”

Wound patterns

That information is gleaned from the entry wound. Bullet wounds create specific patterns depending on the speed and type of the bullet, says Prieels. What’s more, bullets burn the skin at the point of entry, and the shorter the distance from the gun to entry point, the more energy and therefore heat the bullet has and the greater the scorching. “The closer the distance, the smaller and more neat the hole will be, too,” says Prieels. “The further the bullet has to travel, the more movement it has so the hole isn’t as neat.” It should only take investigators about an hour to do that kind of analysis, he adds.

Pathologists and ballistics experts should be able to give an indication of whether a bullet has passed through something before hitting the victim, and whether the material was soft or hard, says Hime. This could help to support or refute Pistorius’s claims of where the shots were fired from. Initial reports suggest the bullets passed through Steenkamp’s clothes, indicating that she was dressed.

This analysis might also determine the order of impact of the bullets. “These facts are all central to the case,” says Hime, but difficult to determine. “It’s not so easy to find out which shot was first because you have to take into account the way the victim falls after the first shot,” says Prieels.

Blood-spatter experts are likely to be called in. Michelle Hoffman of Biodynamics Engineering, in Pacific Palisades, California, said that blood and bullet-path evidence – entry wounds, exit wounds, bullet strikes in wall – can be used to determine positional information. “That is, location of the weapon and the shooter relative to the victim, as well as the victim’s body position relative to the surroundings – on floor, standing erect – as well as body position itself – cowering, arms raised.”

Blood tests

Toxicologists will also be called upon. They will probably have tested the blood of both Pistorius and Steenkamp for drugs and alcohol. “This will help investigators say something about the last moments of [Steenkamp’s] life,” says Hime. It could, for example, help to validate or refute descriptions of the time leading up to the shooting. “Toxicology can help to determine the likely state of mind of Pistorius and his girlfriend, which will be vital to a premeditation argument.”

DNA evidence probably isn’t going to contribute much to this case, says Scott Watanabe, a forensic scientist from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “If Pistorius was denying that he used the gun, we could swab the gun and get touch DNA to compare with his reference sample, but I don’t think that’s being questioned.”

Uncovering what really happened could, however, be complicated by the possibility that the crime scene was contaminated by police on initial investigation.

The legendary investigator, Henry Lee, who was involved in the O.J. Simpson case, 9/11 forensic analysis and the reinvestigation of the John F. Kennedy assassination, says he has been following the Pistorius case, and that forensic science will provide the answers. “Crime scene swabs, physical evidence, data mining and witnesses. Get those four elements and you will solve the case.”

Sources: New Scientist, The Guardian, http://www.news24.com

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