A surprise order for mental testing for Oscar Pistorius raises questions for his trial
Testing will last at least 30 days, pushing off the end of the trial
A prosecution move for mental observation is very unusual
How the move affects Pistorius and the verdict depends on what experts decide
Oscar Pistorius needs to undergo mental health examinations, the judge in his murder trial ruled Wednesday, putting a halt to the proceedings after nearly two months of testimony. The very unusual move throws the trial into confusion.
How long’s the trial delayed?
We don’t know yet. Judge Thokozile Masipa will formally issue her ruling on Tuesday. By that time, she should know who will do the evaluation of Pistorius and when and where it will take place. At that point, it should be somewhat clearer when the trial will resume – if it does at all.
How long will the evaluations take?
A minimum of 30 days.
Will Pistorius have to live in an institution?
Judge Masipa hopes he will not. She said she did not intend to “punish the accused twice” by putting him in a situation where he had to be locked up, and asked if he could be evaluated as an outpatient. Pistorius should learn the answer on Tuesday.
Neither side believes he’s mentally ill, so what’s this all about?
The defense team put a psychiatrist, Dr. Merryll Vorster, on the stand to testify that Pistorius suffers from “generalized anxiety disorder.” The disorder means he has “excessive” concerns about security, and that he felt threatened even when, objectively, he was not, she testified.
Prosecutor Gerrie Nel seized on the psychiatrist’s testimony, arguing that if the defendant’s mental health is even potentially an issue in the trial, he needed to be referred for expert evaluation.
The defense is not arguing that mental illness played a role in Pistorius shooting and killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, so they opposed the motion.
But after considering the question overnight, Masipa granted the prosecution request.
Was Nel’s push for tests a total surprise? What’s his strategy?
Yes. It’s incredibly unusual for the prosecution – rather than the defense – to argue that a defendant might have defense of insanity.
Nel seems to be placing a high-stakes bet that experts will disagree with the evidence of Dr. Vorster.
How will finding on mental state affect the trial?
The expert panel evaluating Pistorius has three options.
They could find that Pistorius was mentally incapacitated when he shot Steenkamp, which would end the trial immediately in a verdict of not guilty by reason of mental illness. That would lead to the athlete being committed to a mental institution until he is ruled not to be a danger.
The doctors could also find that he had “diminished responsibility” at the time he killed Steenkamp. In that case, the trial would resume, and the experts’ finding would be taken into consideration during sentencing if he is found guilty.
The third possibility is that the experts could disagree with the defense psychiatrist and say that Pistorius’ mental health is not an issue at all. If that happens, Vorster’s testimony could be disregarded.
The experts might not all agree with each other, and lawyers on either side could disagree with the experts’ report, leading to any number of possible outcomes.
If there is any dispute, the final decision about what to do with the experts’ report lies with the judge.
Is this good or bad for Pistorius?
It all depends on what the mental health experts decide. If they agree with Vorster or find he was incapacitated, that will help Pistorius.
In one respect, though, the ruling is not to his advantage: It pushes off the end of his trial, leaving him in legal limbo at least another few months.