Paralympian Oscar Pistorius is seen during his murder trial at the high court in Pretoria on Tuesday, 13 May 2014.Pistorius is charged with murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. Picture: Daniel Born/The Times/ Pool

Pretoria - There is no magazine rack in psychology. No cricket bat to bring to court. No holes in a door to shine lasers through, no bullet fragments, no autopsy.

If you crave the physically tangible in determining the truth, psychology has you blindfolded in the dark. “Some people would say it is subjective,” said Jackie de Wet, from the criminology and forensic studies department at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

But don’t underestimate what you can’t see. Forensic psychology and psychiatry are a scientific tool like any other, to be used by both sides in the courtroom.

Dr Jaco Barkhuizen, head of the department of criminology at the University of Fort Hare, said the issues with psychiatric assessment in a court case were no different to the issues that played themselves out in other forensic fields.

“In the court case, whether it is ballistics or medical science, you will have experts with divergent views using the same science,” he said.

There are guidelines for what should be done, how and for how long. But that said, it’s not a recipe book, and how a set of symptoms play out will look different on each individual.

“Anyone can read from a textbook and apply it, (but) it’s the interpretation at the end of the day,” said De Wet. “A lot of the time it comes down to the subjective understanding of (the condition) and the interpretation of what the individual (practitioner) sees.”

But if the court decides to send Oscar Pistorius to a psychiatric institution for 30 days, that should give it a better chance of coming to the correct conclusion, as there will be more information to work with.

Seeing someone’s behaviour every day for a month is more revealing than seeing them for a few hours.

Included in the assessment would probably be a medical and mental status examination, exploration of psychological and physical history, as well as standardised tests to pigeon-hole the issue.

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