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Published: Monday, 6/30/2014

Pistorius Was Not Mentally Ill at Time of Shooting, Psychiatrists Report

NEW YORK TIMES

LONDON — The trial of Oscar Pistorius, the disabled South African track star, resumed today after psychiatric assessments that could have derailed the proceedings concluded that he was not mentally ill when he killed his girlfriend last year.

The trial in the South African capital, Pretoria, had been suspended since mid-May while Pistorius, 27, underwent tests at the Weskoppies Psychiatric Hospital. If the evaluation had found serious mental impairment, his trial could have ended abruptly.

The prosecution says he murdered his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, 29, in a jealous rage after an argument, but Pistorius says he shot her by mistake, believing that an intruder had entered his home and was hiding in a toilet cubicle when he fired four shots through the door.

Before the postponement, a defense witness said he suffered from a general anxiety disorder stemming from the amputation of both legs below the knee at the age of 11 months after he was born without fibula bones.

But a report prepared by the psychiatrists who examined him found that “at the time of the alleged offenses, the accused did not suffer from a mental disorder or mental defect that affected his ability to distinguish between the rightful or wrongful nature of his deeds,” the chief prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, told the court today.

The conclusion was critical since defendants deemed unable to distinguish between right and wrong can be committed indefinitely to state mental institutions, South African lawyers not associated with the case have said.

Nel and the lead defense lawyer, Barry Roux, accepted the findings.

The ruling permitted the trial, which is being broadcast around the world, to resume with the defense winding up its case before both sides present closing arguments to Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa. Since there are no jury trials in South Africa, the judge, advised by two assessors, will determine Pistorius’ guilt or innocence most likely after lengthy deliberations.

Before the killing on Feb. 14, 2013, Pistorius was one of the world’s most famous athletes, a symbol of overcoming adversity after he competed against both able-bodied and disabled runners at the Olympic and Paralympic Games in London in 2012. He and Steenkamp, a model and law graduate, had seemed a gilded couple in the world of South African celebrity.

Before the trial adjourned last month, Dr. Merryll Vorster, a forensic psychiatrist called by the defense, said Pistorius’ anxiety dated to the amputation of his legs, exacerbated by a childhood when his father was frequently absent and his mother was so worried about intruders that she slept with a firearm under her pillow.

The athlete’s condition, which worsened with time, made him “hypervigilant” about potential threats and led him to respond to perceived danger with reflexes of “fight” rather than “flight,” Vorster said. Nel, the prosecutor, used the testimony to demand a psychiatric examination of Pistorius.

In the United States and elsewhere, psychiatric assessments are often used by the defense to establish diminished responsibility — and therefore limited culpability. But in the Pistorius case, the prosecution sought to challenge the defense’s inference that psychological factors buttressed the case for acquittal or leniency.

Pistorius faces a mandatory minimum prison term of 25 years if convicted of premeditated murder, but he could face a shorter sentence on a lesser charge of culpable homicide.

As the trial resumed Monday, Gerald Versfeld, the surgeon who amputated Pistorius’ lower legs, quoted the runner as saying that he fell frequently and had difficulties balancing when he was walking on his stumps without the prosthetics he now uses. Underlining the runner’s vulnerability, he quoted Pistorius as saying his dog had “knocked me over many times.”

According to reporters in the courtroom, Masipa and her assessors closely examined Pistorius’ stumps as Versfeld explained how the skin moved on them. The scrutiny, which was not televised, left Pistorius distressed after the details of his disability were exposed, the reporters said in posts on Twitter.



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