The judge in the murder trial of South African Olympian Oscar Pistorius on Wednesday ordered the athlete to undergo a comprehensive mental health assessment by a panel of psychiatrists, after an allegation he suffered from an anxiety disorder.
Pistorius stood as Judge Thokozile Masipa handed down her ruling. The judge said the court had no choice but to refer him for evaluation after psychiatrist Merryll Vorster testified that the athlete had “generalized anxiety disorder” that may have affected his actions the night he shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
The aim, the judge said, was not to punish him twice, but to ensure that justice was done. She raised the possibility that Pistorius would not have to stay overnight in a state mental hospital for the entire 30-day assessment, but could be an outpatient.
The judge’s decision was an apparent blow to defense attorney Barry Roux, who vigorously contested the move in court on Tuesday, calling it a ruse by the prosecution to get a second psychiatric opinion. Pistorius told the BBC on Monday that the request that he be referred for psychiatric evaluation was “a joke.”
But Masipa said the defense’s opposition was “strange” and that the trigger for the evaluation order was the testimony from Vorster, a defense witness.
“The effect of the evidence is that a doubt has been created that the accused may have another defense, relating to his criminal responsibility,” Masipa said. Vorster’s testimony raised the possibility that Pistorius’ criminal responsibility might be lessened by his anxiety disorder, she added.
Under South Africa’s Criminal Procedures Act, a court must refer an accused person for psychiatric evaluation if there is an allegation or reasonable possibility that a person did not know right from wrong because of a mental defect, or if a defect meant he or she couldn’t act in accordance with right or wrong.
Roux argued that Pistorius did not meet either test.
But Masipa said she found that “the accused may not have raised the issue that he was criminally responsible at the time of the incident in so many words, but the evidence led on his behalf dearly raises the issue and, therefore, cannot be ignored.”
Pistorius’ lawyers appeared to want to call Vorster as an expert witness to show that due to the athlete’s alleged anxiety disorder, combined with feelings of fear and vulnerability over what he thought was an intruder in his home, it was reasonable for him to fire four shots through the toilet door in his bathroom, killing his girlfriend.
The prosecution argues Pistorius was in a rage and intended to kill Steenkamp after a quarrel.
Arnold Pistorius, the athlete’s uncle and family spokesman, welcomed the judge’s ruling in a statement to journalists.
“As a family we are comforted by the thoroughness and commitment of this judgment. It’s about a fair trial,” he said. “It reaffirms our confidence in the South African justice system.” He took no questions.
The court-ordered psychiatric panel could help Pistorius’ case or reduce his sentence if he is convicted if it finds that the Olympic sprinter suffers from generalized anxiety disorder. But a finding by the panel that he was fully functional at the time of the crime, able to control himself and had full criminal liability, could complicate his defense.
The judge noted that there is no definition of mental illness in the Criminal Procedures Act and that the court didn’t have the expertise to make a diagnosis, so a proper psychiatric investigation into Pistorius’ mental condition was required.
“This court, as a lay court, is ill-equipped to deal with the allegations [of generalized anxiety disorder] at this stage. They have substance and are in line with the accused’s evidence,” she said.
She added that Vorster had seen Pistorius only twice and may not have had much time to write her report.
Roux’s call for Pistorius to be treated as an outpatient was supported by the judge, who said the aim was not to punish Pistorius. The prosecutor said this possibility would be investigated.
Pistorius’ advocate also called for psychologists to be included on the expert panel, not just psychiatrists.
Masipa adjourned the trial until Tuesday, when she said she will issue her final order to refer Pistorius for a psychiatric evaluation after considering input from both sides in the case.