Oscar Pistorius might be sent to a psychiatric hospital for 30 days’ observation. This would be for a panel of psychiatrists to assess him and to bring out a report regarding his capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct and his capacity to act accordingly when he shot Reeva Steenkamp in the early hours of Valentine’s Day last year.
While it is not yet certain that such an application will be launched on Tuesday, prosecutor Gerrie Nel told the High Court in Pretoria on Monday that he is considering the application.
This followed evidence of psychiatrist Dr Merryl Vorster, who was called by the defence.
She testified that Pistorius suffered from a general anxiety disorder, which could be relevant to the events of February 14 last year, when he fired four shots into the toilet door behind which Steenkamp was.
Pistorius’s defence is that he became terrified and believed there were intruders in his house when he heard the bathroom window opening at about 3am that morning. He had then grabbed his gun and fired shots as he wanted to protect himself and Steenkamp.
He said he had no idea at the time that she was behind the door.
Vorster, who interviewed Pistorius on two occasions, as well as his family members and friends, found that he has a general anxiety disorder which affects all aspects of his functioning and how he responded to situations.
She said his anxiety had increased over time and to help alleviate this, he controlled his environment.
His reactions to situations were different from those of other people because of his physical disability, which makes him feel vulnerable, and if he was in a situation where he felt unsafe his levels of anxiety increased.
Vorster also said that Pistorius feared the high crime level in the country and had beefed-up his security as a result.
People had different reactions when they felt their lives were in danger – they either had a flight-or-fight response, she said.
On the morning when he fired the shots, Pistorius chose to “fight” as he was on his stumps and could not move fast enough to flee from the situation.
During cross-examination, Nel questioned Vorster as to whether Pistorius was at the time able to distinguish between right and wrong and whether he had diminished capability owing to his mental disorder.
Vorster said that while she did not say his mental state affected his abilities, it did play a role during the incident and that the court should take this into consideration when evaluating the facts of the case.
Nel said that if there was a possibility that Pistorius suffered from diminished responsibility, the court was obliged in terms of the Criminal Procedure Act to refer him to a mental institution for observation.
“You diagnosed a mental illness,” he said.
Vorster responded that she had merely diagnosed a disorder.
Nel told the court several times that he was going to launch the application and at some stage said he could not complete his cross-examination before he heard the court’s verdict in this regard.
He said that depending on the outcome (of the application), he would call Vorster back to the stand.
Vorster responded that it might not be a bad idea, as the court would then also have the opinion of other psychologists.
Defence advocate Barry Roux, clearly not expecting this turn of events, vehemently objected.
He said it was not his case that Pistorius suffered from a mental disorder which affected his abilities to distinguish between right and wrong during the incident. The defence had only said his mental state could have contributed towards his actions.
Nel asked the court to adjourn earlier so that he could consult his psychologist before further questioning Vorster and possibly launching his application.
A senior criminal advocate, Piet Pistorius (no relation to Oscar), said he was surprised that the issue of general anxiety disorder had been raised at this late stage of the defence case as a factor which might have played a role in the shooting.
“It is certainly surprising, but it is not uncommon for an accused to be referred for mental evaluation at this late stage of the case. It is normally done at the start of a trial. But if there are enough grounds, a court can consider such an application,” he said.