Oscar Pistorius has 'anxiety disorder since childhood'

Oscar Pistorius trial - 12 May - in 60 seconds

South African Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius has had an anxiety disorder since childhood and was "anxious" about violent crime, a psychiatrist has told his murder trial.

His actions when he shot his girlfriend on Valentine's Day last year "should be seen in context of his anxiety," Merryll Vorster said.

The prosecution dramatically asked for him to undergo mental observation.

The double-amputee Paralympian denies intentionally killing Reeva Steenkamp.

'Fight rather than flight'

This was a day of unexpected drama in courtroom GD, with the possibility of a lengthy delay now hanging uncomfortably in the air.

Speaking in court immediately after the adjournment, Oscar Pistorius told me the prosecution's application to refer him for further psychiatric evaluation was "a joke" and insisted that today's evidence from Dr Merryll Vorster had "gone well".

But the course of this already extended trial now hinges on Judge Masipa's decision - likely on Tuesday - on whether to grant the prosecution's request.

The defence has always maintained that the athlete's disability and vulnerability would play an important role in their case - hence today's expert who diagnosed his "general anxiety disorder". It is now clear Mr Pistorius' team feel Prosecutor Gerrie Nel is "playing games".

But the state believes the psychiatrist's evidence is further proof that the athlete is changing his defence - from putative self-defence, to an accidental shooting, to something now linked to his state of mind.

From what I have gleaned from numerous sources in court, it is likely that Judge Masipa will not grant the prosecution its request, but we shall know for certain only when she announces her decision.

The BBC's Milton Nkosi says it is as if tectonic plates are shifting at the trial as the prosecution moved towards getting permission from the judge for Mr Pistorius to be mentally assessed.

The defence opposed the application before the court adjourned on Monday. It will reconvene on Tuesday.

If the prosecution request is granted, Mr Pistorius may spend up to 30 days in a state mental health institution for observation and assessment of his mental health.

It was expected that the defence would conclude its case by the end of this week - after which both sides would have an opportunity to present their closing arguments.

Mr Pistorius says he accidentally shot Ms Steenkamp through the toilet door in a state of panic, mistaking the 29-year-old model and law graduate for an intruder.

Giving evidence on Monday, Dr Vorster said that Mr Pistorius was more likely to respond to any threat with "fight" rather than "flight".

The anxiety disorder was the result of surgery at the age of 11 months to remove his lower legs, she said, a "traumatic assault" for an infant at that age.

She said that Mr Pistorius felt remorse over Ms Steenkamp's death.

"He feels guilty and has developed a depressive disorder as a result," she said.

Family members of the South African Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius attend his murder trial Family members of South African Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius attended his trial on Monday
Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp at an awards ceremony in Johannesburg - 14 February 2013 The couple had been dating for just a few months when she was shot dead in 2013

The psychiatrist said that the reactions of Mr Pistorius in the early hours of 14 February 2013 would have been different to that of a "normal, able-bodied person without generalised anxiety disorder".

Start Quote

[His father was] largely absent, and his mother was anxious, sleeping with a firearm under her pillow”

End Quote Merryll Vorster Psychiatrist

However, she said that this would not have affected his ability to distinguish between right and wrong and that it was up to the court to decide whether his anxiety disorder - from which he had suffered since childhood - diminished his responsibility.

"I think the generalised anxiety is relevant to the case. But the court will have to decide," she said.

'Danger to society'

Dr Vorster said generalised anxiety disorders are not uncommon, and were not signs of mental illness.

Safety measures at his home were "out of proportion" to the threat of crime in South Africa, she said.

She said that Mr Pistorius' parents separated when he was six and his father was not a responsible parent.

Merryll Vorster: Pistorius "is certainly remorseful about the events... and has developed a depressive disorder"

"[He was] largely absent, and his mother was anxious, sleeping with a firearm under her pillow," she said.

She said that his mother's death in March 2002 meant that he lost an "emotional attachment figure".

State prosecutor Gerrie Nel asked Ms Vorster whether someone with anxiety disorder plus guns would be "a danger to society".

"Yes," she replied.

The red light from a laser lines up bullet holes on the bathroom door during the trial of Oscar Pistorius in Pretoria (12 May 2014) The order and trajectory of bullets that killed Reeva Steenkamp is a key part of the case
South African Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius yawns in the dock during his trial in Pretoria (12 May 2014) Mr Pistorius suffered bouts of anxiety as child because of his parents' separation and his disability, a psychiatrist said
State prosecutor Gerrie Nel (12 May 2014) State prosecutor Gerrie Nel says that Mr Pistorius shot Reeva Steenkamp dead after a row

There are no juries at trials in South Africa, so the athlete's fate will ultimately be decided by Judge Thokozile Masipa, assisted by two assessors.

If found guilty, Mr Pistorius - a national sporting hero dubbed the "blade runner" because of the prosthetic limbs he wears to race - could face life imprisonment.

If he is acquitted of murder, the court must consider an alternative charge of culpable homicide, for which he could receive about 15 years in prison.

INTERACTIVE
  • ×

  • 1. Balcony

    × Balcony

    Mr Pistorius said in his statement at the start of the trial that he woke in the early hours and walked on his stumps to the balcony, pulled in two fans, closed the sliding door and drew curtains. He said that shortly before he had spoken to Reeva, who was in bed beside him.

    He said he rejected prosecution claims that a witness heard arguing coming from the house before the shooting.

  • 2. Bathroom window

    ×

    Mr Pistorius said he heard the bathroom window sliding open and believed that an intruder, or intruders, had entered the bathroom through a window which was not fitted with burglar bars.

    "Unbeknown to me, Reeva must have gone to the toilet in the bathroom at the time I brought in the fans," he said.

    Mr Pistorius said he approached the bathroom armed with his firearm, to defend himself and his girlfriend, believing Ms Steenkamp was still in bed.

  • 3. Shooting

    ×

    Both sides agree four bullets were fired. Ms Steenkamp was hit three times.

    Mr Pistorius said he fired his weapon after hearing a noise in the toilet which he thought was the intruder coming out of the toilet to attack him and Ms Steenkamp.

    He said he was in a fearful state, knowing he was on his stumps and unable to run away or properly defend himself.

    Mr Pistorius said he rejected claims that he was on his prostheses when he shot at the door.

    A witness told the trial she woke to hear a woman screaming and a man shouting for help. She said that after the screams she heard four shots.

  • 4. Bedroom

    ×

    Mr Pistorius said he went back to the bedroom after shooting at the toilet door, still shouting for Reeva. Lifting himself up onto the bed, he felt over to the right hand side of it and noticed Ms Steenkamp was not there.

    Mr Pistorius said this was when he realised she could have been in the toilet.

  • 5. Toilet door

    ×

    Mr Pistorius said he went back to the bathroom but the toilet was locked, so he returned to the bedroom, pulled on his prosthetic legs, turned on the lights before bashing in the toilet door with a cricket bat.

    Forensics expert Johannes Vermeulen told the court that the height of the marks on the door caused by the cricket bat suggest Mr Pistorius was on his stumps at the time.

  • 6. Emergency calls

    ×

    Mr Pistorius's defence team say he then called security at the gated housing complex and a private paramedic service before carrying Ms Steenkamp downstairs.

    A security guard claimed it was the other way round, and he had called Mr Pistorius first after reports of gunfire. However, phone records shown to the court revealed Mr Pistorius called the estate manager at 3:19am, a minute later he called the ambulance service and at 3:21am he called estate security.

    A minute later he received an incoming call - estate security calling him back.

    According to police phone expert Francois Moller, Mr Pistorius called his friend Justin Divaris a short time later and just after 4:00am he called his brother Carl.

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