By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The final, horrific moments in Reeva Steenkamp’s life came into focus Wednesday at the murder trial of South African Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius, as a ballistics expert offered graphic testimony on how she died.
Ballistics expert Chris Mangena told the court that Steenkamp, Pistorius’ girlfriend, was standing, facing the door, when he shot her for the first time.
The bullet, a Black Talon-style projectile designed to open up and cause maximum tissue damage — with six sharp talons blossoming in a star shape upon impact with flesh — struck her in the hip, shattering the bone and breaking up inside her.
She immediately collapsed backwards into a sitting position on a magazine rack behind her in the toilet off the bathroom, he said. Steenkamp raised her arms above her head in a defensive manner, according to Mangena.
Pistorius kept firing. One shot struck his girlfriend in her arm and exited. A third hit her left hand, which was trying to protect the right hand side of her head, Mangena said. That bullet penetrated her skull. Another bullet hit a wall and ricocheted around the toilet.
After the third bullet struck her head, Steenkamp immediately slumped to the right, Mangena told the court.
“I am of the opinion that after this wound was inflicted in the head she dropped immediately,” he said. “Her head ended up on the toilet seat,” he said. The lower part of her body was still on the magazine rack, he added.
According to Mangena, had Steenkamp collapsed onto the floor instead of into a sitting position on the magazine rack after the first gunshot to the hip, the subsequent shots would not have hit her.
Pistorius has pleaded not guilty to murder, contending that he believed Steenkamp was an intruder when he fired his gun. Defense attorney Barry Roux said he would later call his own ballistics expert who would offer a different analysis that would contest Mangena’s version on the order in which the bullets were fired and Steenkamp’s position.
Describing the impact of a Black Talon-style expanding bullet Mangena said, “It creates six talons and these talons are sharp. It cuts through the organs of a human being. If it hits a hard object like a bone it breaks into pieces.” He held up photographs of star-shaped spent bullets that he had fired into a water tank.
They do not expand when hitting a hard object such as a door, but are designed to open up when they hit moist objects, like flesh, he explained.
Mangena, the prosecution’s ballistics expert, said it was most likely that Pistorius was not wearing his prosthetic legs when he fired his gun and that he was standing at a distance of two or more feet from the door. Both the prosecution and defense agree that Pistorius was not wearing his legs at the time of the shooting.
Mangena said his findings were based on the height of the shots in the door, their angle and ricochet wounds, among other factors.
He said the position of the spent shell casings suggested the shooter moved as he fired. But he drew no firm conclusion from the position of the casings on the floor because they could have been kicked or moved. Under cross-examination, Mangena said their position was consistent with Pistorius’ version, that he stood at the bathroom entrance when he fired.
Pistorius has also been charged with two counts of recklessly discharging a gun, once in a restaurant in 2013 and once out of the sunroof of a car in 2012. He has pleaded not guilty to both.
Two witnesses have earlier described Pistorius firing the gun out of a car sun roof after being angered by a policeman who earlier stopped the car and handled the gun. Mangena said it was dangerous to fire a gun into the air, as the falling bullet could kill a person.
The weapon Pistorius fired in a restaurant in 2013 was a Glock pistol with a safety mechanism on the trigger. It wouldn’t have been possible to fire a shot without pulling the trigger, Mangena said.
AFP Photo/Bongiwe Mchunu