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Lead investigator booted in Pistorius case

By Robyn Curnow and Michael Pearson, CNN
updated 5:50 PM EST, Thu February 21, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Pistorius family "fully respect the bail hearing process," uncle says
  • Police replaced Hilton Botha after prosecutors reinstated murder charges against him
  • The sprinter's lawyer says the state's murder case has collapsed
  • A hearing to decide whether the track star gets bail will resume Friday

Pretoria, South Africa (CNN) -- Prosecutors in the Oscar Pistorius murder case will make a final push Friday to keep the acclaimed track star in jail after a bail hearing jolted by the sudden removal of the lead investigator.

The South African Police Service pulled Hilton Botha from the case Thursday after prosecutors reinstated attempted murder charges against him.

Botha is accused of chasing and firing on a minibus full of people while drunk in 2011. He is charged with seven counts of attempted murder.

The allegations were the latest blow to a prosecution case that has suffered through several miscues during the bail hearing, including admissions that police could have contaminated the crime scene and failed to properly catalog evidence.

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Prosecutors are trying to keep Pistorius jailed pending his trial on a charge of premeditated murder in the February 14 shooting death of his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, 29. The hearing ended Thursday with no decision on bail and is scheduled to resume Friday.

Pistorius, 26, is accused of the premeditated murder of Steenkamp after, according to prosecutors, a heated argument in the early morning hours of Valentine's Day.

The sprinter, however, says he thought an intruder was hiding in a toilet room inside the bathroom of his Pretoria home. He says he fired into the room in a fit of terror before realizing the person inside was Steenkamp.

Replacing Botha

Court officials learned Thursday that prosecutors had restored the charges against Botha in the 2011 incident. The charges had previously been withdrawn for additional investigation, but prosecutors decided Wednesday to proceed, said Commissioner Riah Phiyega of the South African Police Service.

Phiyega praised Botha, saying he is an experienced investigator who "has presented the case of the police well."

Botha was replaced by the department's most senior detective, Vinesh Moonoo, in a move Phiyega said positioned the department for a "long-haul" investigation of Steenkamp's killing.

During the three-day bail hearing, being held in a dark, stuffy Pretoria courtroom, defense attorney Barry Roux hammered away at the credibility of Botha and the entire police investigation.

He argued police had missed a bullet in the toilet of the bathroom where Steenkamp was shot and may have contaminated the crime scene by failing to wear protective foot covers.

Botha told Roux that investigators didn't wear the booties because they'd run out.

Bulelwa Makeke, the spokeswoman for South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority, said before the announcement of Botha's removal that the accusations against the investigator would be little more than a "speed bump" in the Pistorius case.

Gallery: Athletes charged with murder

Monumental collapse?

In arguments wrapping up Thursday's session, Prosecutor Gerrie Nel said Pistorius' defense team has failed to explain why investigators found two cell phones and the gun believed to have been used in the shooting in front of the shower.

That goes to the prosecution claim that Steenkamp didn't merely get up to relieve herself in the middle of the night, but in fact had locked herself in the bathroom with her cell phone to protect herself from Pistorius.

Nel also said Pistorius has shown a lack of realization of what he has done and cast doubt on Pistorius' claims that one of the reasons for his extreme fear that night was that he had been a victim of burglary and violent crime in the past.

Where, Nel asked, are the court cases from those incidents? Why, Nel asked, didn't Pistorius whisper to Steenkamp or try to wake her up when he heard noises?

In full: Pistorius' affidavit to court

In addition to his questions about the bullet and the booties, Roux got Botha to acknowledge during the hearing that investigators had failed to collect any evidence that counters Pistorius' argument that he mistakenly shot Steenkamp.

Roux told Magistrate Desmond Nair that the prosecution's case had suffered a monumental collapse.

The defense attorney also questioned police claims that a witness who lived at least 300 meters (328 yards) from Pistorius' home had heard a raging argument coming from the home.

He also said officers had failed to properly investigate and catalog evidence found there, including ammunition and a bottle of what Botha first called testosterone before backtracking.

Roux said the substance is an herbal remedy.

Authorities have argued that ballistic evidence shows Pistorius had to intentionally target the toilet to strike Steenkamp, and that evidence shows he was standing on his prosthetic legs when he shot through the bathroom door.

Pistorius said in his statement that when he shot through the door, he was feeling vulnerable to an intruder because he was not wearing his legs and had limited mobility.

Prosecutors are fighting bail because they worry that Pistorius will disappear if he's released, and they say that he has a history of police encounters that suggest he is a threat to public safety.

Pistorius has pledged to stay in South Africa and fight the charges if released, adding that he's unlikely to escape notice as a well-known athlete who walks on prosthetic legs.

His family issued a statement Thursday afternoon through Vuna Reputation Management, saying that they "fully respect the bail hearing process."

"They understand it is in the full interest of justice that the process associated with the bail application be followed in its entirety", said Arnold Pistorius, Oscar Pistorius' uncle and family spokesperson. "We are strong and supportive as a family, for Oscar, but we understand that this is in the best interest for all."

Anger about detention

In other developments, the women's branch of South Africa's ruling party accused authorities of giving Pistorius special treatment by holding him at the police station instead of prison.

"If there is some special circumstance that permits this, authorities must share this with the public as they are setting a bad precedent," the statement from the African National Congress Women's League said. "All should be treated equally before the law no matter your standing in society."

What's life like in a South African prison?

Nike pulls away from sprinter

Also Thursday, Nike announced it had suspended its contract with Pistorius, saying it would "monitor the situation closely."

Nike had already pulled a TV ad featuring the sports star.

Nike's bullet ad with Pistorius backfires

Robyn Curnow reported from Pretoria, and Michael Pearson reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN's Marilia Brocchetto, Kim Norgaard and Dianne McCarthy also contributed to this report.

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