Pistorius to start mental evaluation next week

PRETORIA, South Africa — Oscar Pistorius will start a period of psychiatric evaluation at a government institution next week, a judge ruled on Tuesday as she postponed the star athlete’s murder trial until June 30.

A panel of mental health experts is now to decide if the double-amputee runner can be held criminally responsible for killing his girlfriend.

Judge Thokozile Masipa took just a few minutes to read out her ruling that the Olympian must present himself at 9 a.m. on Monday and every weekday after that at the Weskoppies Psychiatric Hospital in Pretoria.

Pistorius will be treated as an outpatient, Masipa ruled, and will be allowed to leave the facility in the South African capital each day at 4 p.m. or when “formally excused” by hospital authorities. The period of evaluation will be for no more than 30 days, the judge said, and will depend on how long the panel of four experts needs to observe Pistorius and compile a report for the court. The panel will consist of three psychiatrists and a clinical psychologist, Masipa said.

Pistorius, 27, claims he shot Reeva Steenkamp, 29, by mistake through a toilet stall door in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 14, 2013, thinking she was an intruder. The prosecution says he murdered her during an argument. A psychiatrist called by Pistorius’ defense lawyers recently testified she believes the runner had an anxiety disorder from childhood which may have contributed to him killing Steenkamp. That prompted the chief prosecutor to ask the court that he be sent for independent psychiatric tests.

Kelly Phelps, a senior lecturer in the public law department at the University of Cape Town and a legal expert observing the trial, said the psychiatric evaluation could affect both the verdict and, if Pistorius is convicted, the sentencing. She saw three possible outcomes:

n An “extreme” conclusion in which the panel decides Pistorius was unable to distinguish between right and wrong, or act in accordance with that understanding, because of an anxiety disorder when he killed Steenkamp. Such an outcome, according to Phelps, would result in a verdict of “not guilty by reason of mental illness.”

n The panel basically agrees with the defense witness, Dr. Merryll Vorster, who said Pistorius was able to distinguish between right and wrong but had the anxiety disorder, possibly bolstering Pistorius’ argument that he was acting in “putative self-defense” because he feared his life was in danger from a perceived intruder.

n The panel contradicts Vorster and says Pistorius does not have an anxiety disorder, possibly casting doubt on the defense’s argument that Pistorius had a long-held fear of crime and felt anxious and vulnerable when he shot Steenkamp.

Judge Masipa said Tuesday that the panel should determine whether any mental illness may have affected Pistorius’ capacity to be “criminally responsible” for killing Steenkamp. She said the panel would evaluate “whether he was capable of appreciating the wrongfulness of his act or of acting in accordance with an appreciation of the wrongfulness of his act.”

The world-famous disabled athlete faces 25 years to life in prison if found guilty on the premeditated murder charge. He is free on bail.

Masipa’s ruling came on day 33 of proceedings in the trial, which started March 3 and was initially predicted to last three weeks.

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