Paralympian Oscar Pistorius was ordered to undergo psychiatric evaluation at a mental health hospital as the prosecution in his murder trial accused him of giving three arguments why he killed girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.
Judge Thokozile Masipa granted the order today at the High Court in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital, following a request by prosecutor Gerrie Nel for a 30-day assessment. It came after a forensic psychiatrist called by the defense said Pistorius has a generalized anxiety disorder that may have affected his actions when he shot Steenkamp, his model girlfriend, on Valentine’s Day last year. That’s a third explanation, after self-defense and involuntary action, that he’s used to defend the shooting, Nel said in the application.
“The accused may not have raised the issue that he was not criminally responsible at the time of incident in so many words, but evidence led on his behalf clearly raises the issue and therefore cannot be ignored,” Masipa said. “The aim of the referral is not to punish the accused twice, so if there is a possibility of making sure that he’s an outpatient that would be preferable.”
Masipa said she would announce the details of the order on May 20 after the prosecution and defense agree on the conditions of the evaluation. Defense lawyer Barry Roux, who opposed the application, shook his head and gazed at the ceiling after returning from discussions with Masipa before the ruling.
Double-amputee Pistorius, 27, says he thought Steenkamp was a burglar when he fired four shots through a locked toilet cubicle door in his bathroom at his home. The prosecution says he killed Steenkamp in a fit of rage.
Pistorius, wearing glasses, a black suit and black tie, stood impassively throughout the judge’s 20-minute ruling and spoke with Roux afterward. He left the courtroom with his sister Aimee and other family members about 10 minutes after the order was made. Oscar Pistorius’s uncle, Arnold, told reporters the family was comfortable with the judge’s commitment to ensure a fair trial.
Nel yesterday questioned why the defense asked Merryll Vorster, a forensic psychiatrist at the Johannesburg-based University of the Witwatersrand, to evaluate Pistorius this month, weeks after he testified in a trial that started March 3. The prosecutor suggested it may be part of the defense’s “fall back” position.
“The court is entitled to know what the accused version is,” Nel wrote in the application. “At this stage the accused relies on three versions and this can never be.”
The runner appeared to change his argument from self-defense when he testified last month, saying that he fired the gun by accident and didn’t mean to pull the trigger.
“The worst scenario for the defense is if the evaluation shows that Oscar does not suffer the anxiety disorder at a level stated by the witness,” Radley Henrico, senior lecturer of procedural law at University of Johannesburg, said by phone.
“This doesn’t change that he has put forward various defenses in court, because there are three versions he has presented. Presenting an array of defenses comprises his credibility.”
Vorster testified that Pistorius is depressed and that his grief is genuine.
While the athlete knew the difference between right and wrong, she said, “it may be his ability to act in accordance with such appreciation was affected by this generalized anxiety disorder.”
Since the prosecution described Pistorius’s testimony last month as “untruthful” and “improbable,” Roux has called witnesses who cast doubt on the state’s version of the shooting and tried to show the runner as being emotionally distraught.
Nel has portrayed Pistorius as a short-tempered gun-lover who shot Steenkamp in a fit of anger. Pistorius only became emotional during his testimony when he was asked difficult questions, Nel argued.
Masipa, who will give the final judgment in the case because South Africa doesn’t have a jury system, could consider a lesser charge of culpable homicide if she rules that the act wasn’t intentional. Pistorius would face a minimum of 25 years in jail if convicted of murder. He’s also pleaded not guilty to three separate gun-related charges.
If Pistorius is declared mentally incompetent, he can’t stand trial and would be kept in a psychiatric institution, the University of Johannesburg’s Henrico said.
“That’s not what the defense would want because its equivalent to a life sentence,” he said.
Known as the Blade Runner because of his J-shaped prosthetic running blades, Pistorius has been free on 1 million rand ($97,000) bail since February last year. He won six Paralympic gold medals and was the first double-amputee to compete at the Olympic Games.