Voice of America (Washington, DC)

14 May 2014

South Africa: Pistorius Murder Trial Takes Turn With Psychiatric Order

JOHANNESBURG — In yet another twist in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial, the judge has granted a request to have the athlete committed to a psychiatric facility for observation for up to 30 days. The move suspends Pistorius' trial for killing his girlfriend at his Pretoria home last year.

Both sides in Pistorius' murder trial have spent weeks poring over every detail of what happened on February 14, 2013. They have spent hours going over the placement of bullet holes in the locked bathroom door through which the runner fired four shots, killing model Reeva Steenkamp.

They have reached back into his life story, the amputation of his legs shortly after birth, his ascendance to being the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics in 2012, and that same year meeting the woman he fell in love with, and then killed.

But the main factor, both sides agree, is something no one can see: the inner workings of his mind. What Pistorius was thinking that night is the critical difference between guilt and innocence in this murder trial.

Anxiety disorder

Pistorius argues his disability makes him feel vulnerable and constantly fearful. He says it was that fear that drove him to fire blindly at the locked bathroom door, where he thought an intruder was hiding. He says he did not mean to shoot Steenkamp. The prosecution argues he meant to kill.

Earlier in the week, a witness for the defense, a psychiatrist, testified the athlete's anxiety disorder may have played a role in his actions. That claim prompted the prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, to essentially ask for a second opinion.

On Wednesday, Judge Thokozile Masipa agreed, essentially ordering the court to to get deeper into his mind.

"The question is whether there was a reasonable possibility that a referral of the accused for observation in terms of section 79 of act 51 of 1977 would reveal, inter alia, that at the time the crime was committed, the accused suffered from a mental disorder which could have resulted in his not being criminally responsible for his act," said Masipa. "Having regard to the facts of this case, I am persuaded that the requirement of a reasonable possibility has been met."

Masipa will release a more detailed ruling Tuesday, which will include logistical details. The move will then delay the trial for at least one month.

Twists, turns

Law professor James Grant of the University of the Witwatersrand said the psychiatrist's claim of possible mental illness forces the court to further examine the claim. But he said he does not think the psychiatric observation will find that Pistorius' mental illness is a contributor to his actions. He said the so-called "insanity defense" claim actually may help the prosecution.

"The referral will, in my view, probably come to nothing. But I think it is going to force the defense to clarify what exactly their defense is," he said. "And that is very positive for the prosecution, because it is then able to focus on disproving the defense. At the moment, the defense is effectively raising a moving target."

In the course of this trial, the runner has shown a range of extreme emotional reactions, sobbing and even vomiting into a bucket during graphic testimony, but Wednesday, he remained stoic.

In the past two years, he has made a journey that no one expected, from the Olympics, to the trial dock, and now, to a psychiatric ward. The next turn will be revealed when the trial resumes.

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