14 May 2014

South Africa: Oscar Referred for Observation

Photo: Alon Skuy
Paralympian Oscar Pistorius with family and friends at the high court in Pretoria.

Pretoria — Mental observation would ensure murder-accused Oscar Pistorius gets a fair trial, Judge Thokozile Masipa said in the High Court in Pretoria on Wednesday.

She ordered that he be sent for psychiatric evaluation after forensic psychiatrist Dr Merryll Vorster testified that he had general anxiety disorder. This prompted the State to lodge an application to refer him for observation.

"This is not about anyone's convenience but rather about justice being served," Masipa said granting the State's application.

"I am satisfied that a case has been made out for the application, or the relief as sought by the State, and I shall grant that order."

Masipa said she was aware that the referral would cause more delays, but she believed it was in the interest of justice.

She said the State should consider the possibility of admitting him as an out-patient.

"The aim of referral is not to punish the accused twice."

Going over her order on Wednesday, Masipa said it was strange that the defence opposed the State's application.

Vorster's evidence had brought to the court's attention Pistorius's criminal capacity when he shot his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. Pistorius had a long history of general anxiety disorder that appeared to be increasing with time, Vorster said.

Masipa said the court would not be able to determine Pistorius's mental capacity "without the guidance of expert psychiatrists".

"There is also a possibility that there may be diminished criminal responsibility," she said.

"This court… is ill-equipped to deal with the issues raised in Dr Vorster's evidence in this case… Dr Vorster's report cannot replace a proper inquiry."

Masipa said Vorster only had two interviews with Pistorius, on May 2 and 7, and she might have had little time to compile a report.

"A proper inquiry… would ensure that the accused gets a fair trial,” she said.

Pistorius is charged with murdering Steenkamp. He shot her dead through the locked door of his toilet in his Pretoria home on February 14 last year. He has denied guilt, saying he thought she was an intruder about to open the door and attack him. The State contends he shot her during an argument.

Masipa said there had been allegations during the trial that Pistorius was not criminally responsible at the time of the shooting and that could not be ignored.

"The allegations have been properly substantiated by the evidence of Dr Vorster," she said.

Vorster said Pistorius believed he heard an intruder before he shot Steenkamp, and had escalating levels of anxiety. She said his physical vulnerability made him more anxious and more likely to have a fight response rather than a flight response.

This was because his disability made it difficult for him to flee from a threat.

The specific order would be handed down next Tuesday.

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel said the State and defence would help the court prepare the order.

Barry Roux, SC, for Pistorius said the defence would seek to have both psychiatrists and psychologists observe Pistorius.

Pistorius, dressed in a black suit, stood emotionless as Masipa spoke. Shortly before the order was handed down, Roux spoke to Pistorius.

After court he hugged members of his family.

Steenkamp's mother June, her cousin, and the Myers family were in court on Wednesday.

Pistorius is also charged with three contraventions of the Firearms Control Act -- one of illegal possession of ammunition and two of discharging a firearm in public. He has pleaded not guilty to these charges as well.

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