Oscar Pistorius – how not to present forensic evidence

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The biggest sport related scandal this week for once has not been related to doping . The death of Reeva Steenkamp and the bail hearing of Oscar ‘Bladerunner’ Pistorius has captivated not only sports fans but also the wider public. What about the forensic evidence?

The tragic events of Valentines day have led today to the bail of Oscar Pistorius.  There has been a massive interest from media in the trail, apparently with journalists almost coming to blows over who would get into the court house.  The prosecution laid out their evidence and it seemed pretty damming.  The evidence showed that the couple had argued, Pistorius had put on his prosthetic legs, found his gun and shot his girlfriend Steenkamp multiple times through the toilet door where she hid from him.  He then failed to phone emergency services to try and save her.  They also alleged that multiple vials of testosterone were found with needles in the house.


At this point it all looked bad for Mr Pistorius.   He had sworn that he did not have his prosthetics on at the time of the shooting.   He shot into the bathroom not knowing who was in there fearing the worst in a country with a very high level of violent crime.  That was indeed the reason he possessed a firearm.


Then the prosecution seemed to fall apart a little.  There was actually no evidence presented to suggest that the shots were fired from a height that required OP to be wearing his prosthetics. This meant that his version of the story may be correct.  The drug described by the prosecution was called ‘Testis Compositim’, a herbal remedy, not Testosterone as suggested.  The officer in charge (OIC) again agreed this could be the case – he hadn’t fully read the label.  The lack of phone call may be because the OIC had not submitted a request to the correct telecom company or had not asked for the correct phone detail.


When I was asked what forensic evidence was likely to be key to this case I suggested:

Crime scene examiners – what evidence can be collected from the scene.  Can we determine the sequence of events?

Ballistics – the angles and distance from which the gun was fired.

Blood pattern analysis – where was the victim when shot and where was the shooter in relation to the victim? The sequence of events may also be evident from this.

Pathology – what were the injuries that caused death?

Toxicology – did the victim have any drugs or alcohol on board?  In the UK and NZ this would be routinely carried out in such a case to determine whether the victim had been under the influence of such substances.  If possible I would suggest testing the alleged perpetrator also.

Now it seems a drugs analyst is also required.  Is the drug within the vials found testosterone (a controlled substance and also banned in sport) or is it the supposed herbal remedy ‘Testis Compositim’? This herbal remedy is said to be used for sports performance enhancement and also by males for performance enhancement of other kinds!


The details of these tests are all still required.  In the UK a bail hearing would not explore the forensic evidence in such a way and it would be very unlikely to get all witness statements together within a week of the offence.


Lets hope by the time of the trail (next schedule is June) the evidence has been properly evaluated and there is some good science behind it. Until then we really have not seen any evidence to judge the case on.


Forensic science will play a big part in this case – let’s hope it is done correctly and to a standard our profession can feel proud of.


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OP Photo http://www.flickr.com/photos/skipsmuseum/

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About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He is currently the subject lead for chemistry and forensic science at Sheffield Hallam University. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. And yes... he watches CSI.