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Oscar Pistorius' defence team using American forensic experts to prepare for murder trial

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JOHANNESBURG - Oscar Pistorius' lawyers are working with a team of American forensic specialists to help prepare the double-amputee Olympian's defence, and likely counter any evidence given by the nearly 50 police officers and criminal experts that prosecutors could call at his murder trial early next year.

The U.S. forensic team is now in South Africa, Pistorius' spokeswoman told The Associated Press on Tuesday, although she could not give any details of their identities or areas of expertise, or if they would stay for the trial, which begins in March and has been scheduled to last just over two weeks.

"A team of forensic specialists from the United States is currently in the country working with Oscar's defence team," spokeswoman Anneliese Burgess said. "We don't want to go into great detail about this except to stay it is very standard practice to work with specialists from various fields in preparation for any trial."

Burgess said the team of specialists visited the house where Pistorius is staying accompanied by his lawyers on Monday, according to the South African Press Association.

Pistorius will go on trial at the North Gauteng High Court in the South African capital Pretoria from Mar. 3, accused of premeditated murder in the shooting death of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp at his house on Feb. 14. The 26-year-old athlete, for years the inspiring poster image of disabled sport, faces a possible life sentence with a minimum of 25 years in prison if convicted. He could also be convicted of a lesser murder charge that has a 15-year mandatory sentence, or even of culpable homicide or negligent killing, which has a 5-year prison term in South Africa if a firearm is used.

South African police took six months to investigate the shooting before indicting Pistorius in August on charges of murder and illegal possession of ammunition, and included nearly 20 forensic experts in their list of over 100 state witnesses for the blockbuster trial. Pistorius' lawyers now have seven months to prepare his defence and draw up their own list of witnesses.

The U.S. experts could be used to counter the state's assertion that Pistorius committed premeditated murder because he knew there was someone in his bathroom in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine's Day and shot through a toilet cubicle door anyway. In the indictment served on Pistorius on Aug. 19 — when his trial date was set — prosecutors also said they have witnesses, most likely neighbours or security guards at the gated community where the Olympian lived, who will testify that they heard a woman scream before the sound of gunshots, insinuating that Pistorius must have known where the 29-year-old Steenkamp was before he fired four shots, hitting her three times and killing her.

Pistorius maintains he mistook the model and reality TV star for a dangerous intruder in his home and shot in fear and in self-defence.

Key forensic evidence will probably include the toilet door through which Pistorius shot, a cricket bat that Pistorius said he used to break down the door when he realized Steenkamp may have been in the cubicle, and records on the multiple cellphones found in his upscale villa in the eastern suburbs of Pretoria after the killing.

If Pistorius' team can prove that he did not have his prosthetic legs on when he shot — and forensic experts may decipher that from the height of bullet holes in the door and the trajectory of the bullets — it will help his defence against the premeditated murder charge and hinder the prosecution, which initially insisted he fired after taking the time to put on his artificial limbs.

There also has been persistent speculation that the cellphone records, as well as the witness accounts, may hold evidence of a fight between the couple on the night of the shooting and point toward a possible motive.

Among the 107 state witnesses listed by the prosecution in the indictment papers, 17 forensic, ballistics and crime scene specialists and a prominent South African criminal psychologist could be called to give evidence against Pistorius. South African police said before indicting Pistorius that their specialist team was "convinced that the accused has a charge to answer to after they worked tirelessly to ensure that the investigation was finalized."

The state investigating team is comprised of police detectives, forensic experts, ballistics experts, forensic psychologists and technology experts, the South African Police Service said in a statement from the very top, the national commissioner's office.

On Tuesday, spokeswoman Burgess said that Pistorius has done little else but focus on his murder trial since his last court appearance six weeks ago.

"Nothing much has changed," Burgess told The AP. "Oscar is preparing for the trial. That's the focus and that's the focus of everybody around him, too."

___

Follow Gerald Imray at www.twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP

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