Oscar Pistorius Trial Day 34: Report could be bad news for Blade Runner

PRETORIA, South Africa – After a 40-day adjournment to evaluate his mental health, Paralympian Oscar Pistorius' expression as he re-entered Pretoria's High Court appeared immutable; composed but resigned.

On Day 34 of his murder trial, the star athlete's face barely moved as prosecutor Gerrie Nel read aloud from the two reports submitted by the panel of four experts who assessed him.

They were unanimous.

"At the time of the alleged offenses, the accused did not suffer from a mental disorder or a mental defect that affected his ability to distinguish between the rightful and wrongful nature of his deeds.

"A mental disorder or mental defect did not affect his ability to act in accordance with the said appreciation of the rightful and wrongful nature of his deeds," read the one-page report from the three psychiatrists – including one appointed by the defense.

Oscar Pistorius reacts in the dock during his murder trial in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria. (REUTERS)
Oscar Pistorius reacts in the dock during his murder trial in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria. (REUTERS)

The psychologist's extensive report – comprising more than an inch of pages compiled in the judge's hand – echoed the sentiment.

Both defense and prosecution have publicly accepted the panel's findings, that Pistorius did not lack "criminal responsibility" for his actions.

For Pistorius, it means he can still be prosecuted for the death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, who he shot and killed in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine's morning last year.

The Paralympian maintains that it was a tragic accident, insisting that he mistook the model for an intruder.

But the fat report may still influence the finer points of Judge Thokozile Masipa's verdict and ruling, depending on its contents – not yet released publicly, despite being handed up as evidence. Court officials say its details will only be made available once both legal teams have agreed they have completed all submissions related to the document, including calling any possible witnesses to testify about its contents.

Pistorius' state of mind remains at the forefront of his "putative self-defense" strategy, which requires him to prove that he genuinely feared for his life when he fired four bullets at a closed door.

The psychiatric assessment was requested by the prosecution after defense witness Merryl Vorster testified that she had diagnosed Pistorius with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which meant he had heightened stress and a deep-seated fear about possible home intruders. If the panel's full report, based on a much more thorough evaluation, disputes her findings, it will be a clear and stinging blow to the defense.

In an attempt to further paint a picture of Pistorius' state of mind and presumed vulnerability in the dark on Feb. 14, the defense called Dr. Gerald Versfeld to the stand – the orthopaedic surgeon who amputated the Paralympian's two legs when he was 11 months old.

Versfeld has since reportedly become very close to the Pistorius family, even joining members to support the Blade Runner at sporting events.

"On his stumps, he is seriously vulnerable in a dangerous situation," the soft-spoken surgeon told the court, "with a seriously impaired ability to flee, seriously impaired ability to ward off danger without a weapon, and in danger of falling should he put the stump down incorrectly."

Versfeld described how the double amputee struggles to walk unaided in the dark, cannot shower as he slips on the tiles, and how the grout between tiles hurts his stumps. He explained that Pistorius' left leg is shorter than his right, and "soft tissue instability" means the athlete has to put down his left stump in a "very particular way" to avoid pain or falling over.

Invited to see for herself, Judge Masipa, flanked by her two assessors, leaned over to peer at Pistorius' stumps as he sat hunched over in front of the toilet door erected in court.

It was a curious moment: strangely, painfully intimate, yet in public view.

Versfeld pointed as he graphically described for the judge the bulge of bone remaining from the athlete's fibula, a portion remaining below the knee, and the surgically-attached heel pad that sometimes slips, "causing the soft tissue to snap away”.

Pistorius has said himself that he hates being seen without his prosthetic legs, an experience he finds deeply embarrassing.

Calling a recess as she returned to the bench, led by the hand of the court orderly – Masipa herself walks with a pronounced limp – the judge gave the Paralympian time to collect himself.

The surgeon was also adamant that state forensic expert Gerhard Vermeulen, who insisted that Pistorius attacked the door with his cricket bat without wearing his prostheses, was wrong.

If the double-amputee was on his stumps, Versfeld said, "I don't believe that he would be able to strike anything with that cricket bat, with any kind of force, because he would overbalance and fall down."

Under incredulous cross-examination from Nel, Versfeld insisted on his report's objectivity, but one critical admission could create difficulties for the defense.

The surgeon spoke of gun recoil being a problem, if Pistorius were to fire shots on his stumps.

Nel seized upon it.

"Except if the accused foresaw that the recoil may be a problem and deliberately stood with his back against the wall to be able to fire better. … That would assist him, am I right? If he had his back against the wall?" Nel asked.

"If he was leaning against something, it would have a big beneficial effect on his ability to balance," the doctor responded.

"So that would be a conscious decision to balance himself, otherwise the gun would knock him over?" Nel pressed.

"I don't know. The fact is that if he is leaning against something, he is definitely in a better position from a balancing point of view," Versfeld said.

If the state manages to demonstrate that Pistorius was thinking clearly when he fired the four shots – while consciously bracing himself against a wall implies – it suggests the intent to shoot, and potentially mortally injure whomever he was firing at. Under South African law, that intent, dolus eventualis – where one recklessly proceeds without care for the foreseeable outcome – is also considered murder and carries a minimum 15-year prison sentence.

But, despite Nel's savvy questioning, the ferocious "bull terrier" prosecutor himself was left grasping for answers, after defense attorney Barry Roux raised the issue of missing evidence.

During Pistorius' own testimony on the stand, Nel repeatedly showed the athlete pictures of his own bedroom, seeking to poke holes in his detailed account of events. One such apparent success came down to the length of a fan's electrical cord – which Pistorius insisted was plugged into a particular socket.

"Aha!" Nel had said then, adamant that it would not stretch that far. "It cannot be," he told the murder-accused, suggesting it showed that his entire account was a fabrication.

Now, the cable has allegedly disappeared.

Addressing the judge, Roux described the correspondence sent to the prosecution, demanding the cable in question. Nel admitted that it was never seized as evidence, nor entered into the inventory.

The defense insists it searched for the cord to no avail, and the new owners of Pistorius' former home have since taken up residence.

Judge Masipa described the matter as "troubling," ordering that whoever was responsible for sealing the house provide an explanation as to the whereabouts of the cord.

More trouble looms on the horizon for the prosecution, as Monday's second defense witness, acoustic engineer Ivan Lin, testified that it would be "very unlikely" for someone in a bedroom 177 meters from Pistorius' home to hear a scream from his toilet.

The state's star witness, and the first to be called to the stand, Michelle Burger, said she was awakened by a woman's "terrified" and "blood-curdling" screams. Lin said that at that distance, a scream would be barely audible, let alone distinguishably male or female.

Although he admits that it is virtually impossible to recreate the exact conditions for a test – Lin suggested that meteorological conditions and even the height of the grass could have an impact on how sound carries – the audio expert said it would have been possible for other neighbors at a distance of 80 meters to hear screams from the toilet and bathroom.

Lin returns to the stand for cross-examination Tuesday.

Pistorius' defense team was initially expected to call three additional witnesses, but on Monday refused to comment on number of witnesses yet to come.


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