Oscar Pistorius has ‘anxiety disorder since childhood’

Merryll Vorster: Pistorius “is certainly remorseful about the events… and has developed a depressive disorder”

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’

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”.

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.

“[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”.

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

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

“Yes,” she replied.

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.

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