Lead cop faces criminal charges, replaced

International

LYDIA POLGREEN & ALAN COWELL

The South African police replaced the lead investigator in the Oscar Pistorius homicide case on Thursday after embarrassing revelations that he was facing seven charges of attempted murder himself.

The decision by the national police commissioner to remove the investigator, Detective Hilton Botha, was the latest in a series of abrupt twists and setbacks in the prosecution of Pistorius, the double amputee track star accused of murdering his girlfriend. It caused a further delay in the defendant's hearing on his request to go free on bail in the case, which has riveted South Africa and much of the world.

The commissioner, Riah Phiyega, said Detective Botha would be replaced by Lt Gen. Vinesh Moonoo, whom she described as the country's "top detective", Associated Press reported.

The attempted-murder charges hanging over Detective Botha only compounded questions about his work on the Pistorius case. Under cross-examination on Wednesday, he was forced to acknowledge sloppy police work and concede that he could not rule out Pistorius's version of events based on the existing evidence.

"The poor quality of evidence presented by chief investigating officer Botha exposed the disastrous shortcomings in the state's case," Pistorius's defence lawyer Barry Roux said Thursday.

The courtroom itself became part of the drama on Thursday when the magistrate hearing the case ordered a brief suspension because of an unexplained "threat to the court". The hearing was later adjourned until Friday.

A police brigadier, Neville Malila, said Detective Botha was set to appear in court in May on the attempted murder charges, stemming from an episode in October 2011 in which Botha and two other police officers fired at a minivan.

"Botha and two other policemen allegedly tried to stop a minibus taxi with seven people," Brigadier Malila said. "They fired shots." While the charges were initially dropped, "we were informed yesterday that the charges will be reinstated," he said. While the prosecution has accused Pistorius, 26, of premeditated murder, Pistorius has said he opened fire through a locked bathroom door thinking there was an intruder in his home, located in a gated community in Pretoria, and had no intention of killing his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, 29, a model and law school graduate.

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