Pretoria - There are two versions of Oscar Pistorius – the one is a confident 1.84m tall international superstar, running across the finish line with outstretched arms.
The other is a vulnerable and fearful disabled person who stands 1.5m tall on his stumps.
This is according to sports and exercise physician, Professor Wayne Derman, who was for the second day on the stand in Pistorius’s North Gauteng High Court murder trial.
Detailing Pistorius’s vulnerabilities as a disabled person, he said crossing the finish line with his arms held up in victory, he had – for that moment – overcome his disability.
Derman agreed with the findings of a clinical psychologist who assessed Pistorius at Weskoppies Hospital and remarked that when standing tall, Pistorius felt less vulnerable. But on his stumps, he fell back into his anxiety and fear and not feeling in control.
Pistorius told the psychologist, “I’m stuffed without my legs on” and for this reason he acquired a weapon.
Derman said: “Although he hates to be pitied and wants to be seen as an able-bodied person, the hard truth is that he is vulnerable on his stumps.”
A physical disability affected every sphere of a disabled person’s life, Derman testified. “The sad thing is, disability never sleeps. It’s there when you go to sleep and there when you wake up. It affects your whole life.”
Derman described Pistorius as an anxious person who had developed an exaggerated startled response to perceived danger.
Because he is vulnerable on his stumps, he chose “fight” instead of “flight” to tackle the perceived danger.
In his opinion, this led to the “horrific tragedy” early on Valentine’s Day last year, when Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in his home in the city.
The “Blade Runner” claims he heard noises and thought he was shooting at intruders who hid behind the toilet door.
Derman said runners were conditioned on the track to rapidly exit the blocks when they heard the gunshot at the start of a race. They were also conditioned to react immediately when they heard the sound. In his opinion, this contributed to Pistorius’s startled response when he heard a noise in his house that morning.
With a started response, the body would automatically kick into a fight-or-flight response which affected the thinking part of the brain, he explained.
Blood flow to this part of the brain would decrease, diminishing the person’s thinking capacity.
The person would first freeze; then respond by either fighting or fleeing.
This, Derman said, happened when Pistorius heard a sound in his home of the bathroom window opening.
During a heated cross-examination by prosecutor Gerrie Nel, Derman conceded that the longer it took for a person to react after freezing, the more the thinking capacity of the brain would return.
Nel said Pistorius had time to fetch his gun and to take it out of its holster, before going to the bathroom with gun in hand. But Derman said other noises further triggered the “fight” response – when Pistorius heard the toilet door closing and then the magazine rack moving behind the door – which caused him to shoot.
Nel, coming out guns blazing, accused Derman of being biased.
He also wanted to know whether Derman was not rather a character witness than an expert witness, as claimed by him. “You want to fit the facts into your version,” Nel told him.
A clearly hot under the collar Derman in turn accused Nel of confusing him with questions and being unfair.
He even on occasion called on the help of Judge Thokozile Masipa, when Nel told him an answer he gave was not true. “I don’t think that is professional,” Derman said.
But Nel vowed “not to go away”. He will be back on Monday with more questions after consulting the State psychiatrist on Friday on technical aspects of Derman’s evidence.