Oscar Pistorius, right, accompanied by unidentified relative walks towards the high court in Pretoria, South Africa, Wednesday, May 14, 2014. Pistorius is charged with murder for the shooting death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentines Day in 2013. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

Cape Town - With Oscar Pistorius heading for psychiatric assessment, comparisons have been made with the case of alleged wife killer Shrien Dewani.

But a top Cape legal expert has warned that the cases were distinctly different.

William Booth, the first public figure to be canvassed on what has become The Oscar Trial – the Cape Argus interviewed him soon after dawn on February 14 last year – expressed surprise at the turn of events.

“It’s quite unusual, quite late for this to happen,” he said. “Normally, if mental illness was going to be used in defence, it would have been raised much sooner. But in this case the defence is not saying he is ‘mentally ill’ – they are simply suggesting mental factors may have played a role in his actions.”

This was in stark contrast to the Dewani case, as the Englishman’s defence team specifically tried to argue the opposite: that he was unfit to stand trial due to acute stress disorder and a depressive adjustment disorder.

But the UK courts ultimately disagreed, and he has since been extradited to stand trial.

Booth said: “The testimony that Pistorius may suffer from generalised anxiety disorder has, of course, presented the prosecution with the option of requesting he be referred for mental observation.

“The psychiatric institution to which Pistorius is sent will appoint a panel of experts, and Pistorius will be entitled to appoint his own medical expert.

“The panel will submit its report to court on whether they deem him fit to stand trial.

“If the panellists are in dispute, the judge can call for an inquiry – ‘a trial within a trial’ – to adjudicate whether he is fit to stand trial.”

Asked whether anything Pistorius said during the assessment could later be used in the trial, Booth said: “Normally, no, it would not. The panel would rule on whether he is fit to stand trial or if he was not aware of what he did at the time of the incident.

“But I suppose if he did say things that incriminated himself, which the prosecution heard about… the judge would then have to decide whether that was protected by doctor-patient privilege.”

Cape Argus