29 Jun 2014

Oscar Pistorius murder trial resumes after psychiatric tests

The Oscar Pistorius case resumes on Monday after a month of psychiatric tests. He is expected to be declared fit to stand trial for the murder of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, writes Debora Patta.

Dr Meryl Vorster: “It is my opinion, m’lady, that Mr Pistorius has an anxiety disorder.”

And with that the sensational Oscar Pistorius murder trial took a dramatic new turn. South African criminal defence lawyer Renier Spies says Pistorius’s legal team had to introduce the psychological defence because the athlete was such a poor witness.

Pistorius testified in his own defence in what many legal experts have said was an abysmal performance on the witness stand. He changed his defence, contradicted his own testimony and could not remember crucial aspects of his own evidence.

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel picked up on this, relentlessly accusing him of failing to remember critical details of the shooting because he was fabricating a version of events that was a lie.

So Vorster’s evidence became what the defence hoped would be a crucial turning point for its argument. And certainly at first it appeared that was indeed the case.

Anxiety disorder

Vorster was calm, confident and impressive, essentially arguing that Pistorius suffers from a generalised anxiety disorder which would have it made it more likely that he would fire a gun if he believed an intruder was breaking into his home and that he would be the target of an attack.

“If he was afraid that there was an intruder, then certainly having a generalised anxiety disorder would have affected the way he reacted to that fear,” Vorster told the court.

The reaction of Pistorius in the early hours of Valentine’s day would have been different to that of a “normal, able-bodied person without generalised anxiety disorder,” Vorster added.

However, she also said that this would not have affected his ability to distinguish between right and wrong and that it was up to the court to decide whether his anxiety disorder diminished his responsibility.

“I think the generalised anxiety is relevant to the case,” she added. “But the court will have to decide.”

‘Danger to society’

Prosecutor Gerri Nel was quick to jump in, asking Vorster whether someone with anxiety disorder plus guns would be “a danger to society”. “Yes,” she replied.

With the introduction of this evidence into the court record, the defence finally brought out Pistorius’s disability and the fact that he feels vulnerable particularly when on his stumps as the key to it’s argument.

But whilst the evidence was dramatic, it might well have backfired against them. Nel appeared ready for it and swept the rug from underneath the defence team by requesting that Pistorius be sent to a mental institution for a 30 day psychiatric evaluation.

The defence seemed surprised by this turn of events, with Pistorius himself describing it as a “joke”.

But Judge Thokozile Masipa is seldom in a joking mood. She upheld the application and Pistorius has spent the last month being evaluated by four mental health experts at Weskoppies.

Pistorius was given permission to be a day patient at Weskoppies Psychiatric Hospital. But these past 30 days would not have been a holiday for him.

According to clinical psychologist Carly Abramovitz, who has worked at the hospital, it would have been an “emotionally taxing” few weeks.

The first few days would be relatively simple as the experts get to know their patient but after that the panel of four conducted lengthy interviews to understand Pistorius’s full life history, his family background, and his criminal and psychiatric history.

Other assessments include personality tests, neuropsychological tests, tests to ascertain whether Pistorius was faking mental illness (technically known as malingering) and general cognitive tests that evaluate each and every cognitive process from intelligence to memory.

Once again Pistorius would have to relive the moment of shooting so that, according to Abramovitz, they can determine whether he was in “particularly heightened state of anxiety”.

‘Extremely rigorous’

The process is “extremely rigorous”, with experts observing him during “every single minute of every procedure”.

The experience is also not particularly warm and cosy. Ivan de Klerk, a forensic psychologist, told South Africa’s Times newspaper that “a counsellor is empathetic and subjective, but in a forensic observation a psychiatrist wants to get to the truth”.

He said. “There is no way it would be possible to fake a condition for 30 days.”

Other than Vorster, the defence witnesses failed to make a significant impact. Key questions still remain, including the evidence led by five neighbours testifying for the prosecution who told the court they heard the “blood-curdling screams” of a terrified woman.

And the ballistics evidence of Captain Chris Mangena, who testified that Pistorius fired four shots but that crucially there was a pause after the second shot which would have allowed time for Reeva Steenkamp to scream.

Screaming ‘like a girl’

The defence argued that the screams were in fact Pistorius screaming “like a girl” and in mortified horror when he realised that he had shot his girlfriend after mistaking her for an intruder.

Their ballistics evidence also attempted to prove that Pistorius fired four shots at the locked bathroom door in rapid succession, allowing no time for Steenkamp to scream.

On Monday the court will hear the results of the psychiatric evidence. It’s widely expected that Pistorius will be declared fit to stand trial and that the case will then proceed as before.

The defence has indicated that it only has a further two or three witnesses to call. After this it will close its case, allowing time for both sides to prepare closing arguments.

Debora Patta is a South African broadcast journalist and TV producer. She reports regularly for Channel 4 News. Follow her on Twitter at @Debora_Patta