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Monday 22 September 2014

Oscar Pistorius trial halted as he is sent to a mental hospital

Aislinn Laing in Pretoria

Published 15/05/2014 | 02:30

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A photographer snaps Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius as he arrives at North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria. Pistorius's trial has been paused as the court awaits the results of a 30-day psychiatric evaluation. Photo: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
A photographer snaps Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius as he arrives at North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria. Pistorius's trial has been paused as the court awaits the results of a 30-day psychiatric evaluation. Photo: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

The trial of Oscar Pistorius, the Paralympic athlete accused of murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, has been dramatically halted after the judge referred him for compulsory psychiatric assessment at a state mental hospital.

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Judge Thokozile Masipa said that evidence introduced by a psychiatrist that Pistorius was suffering from a generalised anxiety disorder which might have influenced his actions on the night he killed Steenkamp "cannot be ignored".

She said she was aware of the delay the referral for 30-day evaluation would cause, but said that any suggestion of mental illness that might diminish his criminal responsibility for what happened should "never be taken lightly".

"This is not about anyone's convenience, but about whether justice has been served," she said.

Pistorius (27) is accused of shooting Steenkamp (29) four times through a locked lavatory door at his Pretoria home in the early hours of February 14 last year after the couple had a row. He insists he did so thinking she was an intruder.

He is expected to be admitted to Weskoppies public psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of Pretoria, where he will be observed by three psychiatrists over 30 days.

Shooting

Crucially for the defendant, the judge asked for him to be admitted as an outpatient, meaning he will be able to return each night to his uncle's comfortable home in Pretoria where he has been living since the shooting on February 14 last year.

"The aim is not to punish the accused twice," Judge Masipa told Pistorius's lawyer and the prosecutor after making her order. "If there is a possibility of making sure he's an outpatient, that's preferable."

Pistorius was told to stand as the judge read out her decision, and seemed calm with the outcome, which was communicated to him beforehand by his lawyers who had been informed by the judge in chambers.

He declined to speak to journalists as he left court, but his family indicated that they understood the judge's need for a "belts and braces" approach.

Pistorius's personal psychologist, who has been at his side throughout the trial, said her greatest concern had been his possible admission as an inpatient.

Arnold Pistorius, the athlete's uncle, said in a statement that the family was "comforted by the thoroughness and detail of this judgment".

A source in the defence team said they were happy with the outcome, despite opposing the referral requested by Gerrie Nel, the state prosecutor.

"If they find there was an aspect of diminished responsibility, that's an open pass," the source said.

The police investigating team said they had not expected the judge to rule in the state's favour, but welcomed the chance to rule out any diminished responsibility Pistorius might have had for what happened.

Mr Nel had warned the judge that Pistorius might raise the lack of proper psychiatric evaluation at appeal if he is convicted of Steenkamp's murder.

"If it's an issue, we need to know," the investigator continued. "We're prosecutors, not persecutors."

Appeal

Pistorius's legal team had opposed the state's application for their client to be referred, saying the GAD was only raised as a factor in what happened rather than a cause.

Mr Nel suggested Barry Roux, Pistorius's barrister, introduced the evidence late in the trial because his client had done "badly" on the witness stand.

Judge Masipa said that either way, the possibility of mental illness had been raised.

"Dr Vorster's evidence was placed before court by the defence," she said. "A doubt has been created that the accused may possibly have another defence."

The judge will hand down her official order, which will include the terms of Pistorius's assessment, on Tuesday next week.

It is understood that Mr Roux will not be charging Pistorius for legal fees during the month that he is being evaluated.

Last week it was reported that Pistorius had to sell his house, where he had shot Steenkamp, to help cover his spiralling legal costs. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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