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Judge Orders Psychiatric Evaluation of Pistorius

In a significant turn in a case that has generated drama and delay in equal proportions, the judge in the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius said on Wednesday that the defendant should undergo a psychiatric evaluation to determine whether he was affected by mental illness when he shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Feb. 14, 2013.

The ruling, which came a day after a forensic psychiatrist testified that Mr. Pistorius had a generalized anxiety disorder, will affect the duration — and potentially the legal architecture — of the closely scrutinized case.

When it opened in early March, the trial was expected to last three weeks, but it is now in its eighth week of hearings. Mr. Pistorius, 27, dressed in a dark suit and tie, stood impassively in the wooden dock of the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, the South African capital, as Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa read her ruling.

On Tuesday, Gerrie Nel, the lead prosecutor, formally applied for a 30-day psychiatric observation of the defendant. Judge Masipa, arguing that “the aim of the referral is not to punish the accused twice,” suggested that Mr. Pistorius could be assessed as an outpatient rather than in a state institution. He has been free on bail since shortly after Ms. Steenkamp’s death.

Pistorius Ordered to Undergo Mental Exam

Thokozile Matilda Masipa, the judge in Oscar Pistorius’s murder trial, said Mr. Pistorius should have a psychiatric evaluation for mental illness, and his uncle, Arnold Pistorius, lauded the decision.

Credit Pool photo by Gianluigi Guercia

The procedures that will be used in the assessment will be determined in discussions involving lawyers from both the defense and the prosecution.

The court will reconvene on Tuesday.

“This is not about convenience, but whether justice has been served,” Judge Masipa said, adding that a psychological assessment would ensure that Mr. Pistorius has a fair trial.

In the United States and elsewhere, psychiatric assessment is often used by the defense to establish diminished responsibility — and therefore limited culpability. But in the Pistorius case, the prosecution sought the examination to challenge testimony by the defense suggesting that psychological factors explained Mr. Pistorius’s behavior.

On Monday, Dr. Merryll Vorster, a forensic psychiatrist testifying for the defense, said she had held two conversations with Mr. Pistorius this month and had determined from those encounters, and from meetings with his family and friends, that the athlete suffered from a generalized anxiety disorder.

His condition, she said, dated to the amputation of both legs below the knee when he was 11 months old. Mr. Pistorius was also molded by the frequent absence of his father and the anxieties of his mother, who was so worried about intruders entering her home that she slept with a firearm under her pillow.

The athlete’s condition, which worsened with time, made him “hypervigilant” about potential threats and led him to respond to perceived danger with “fight” rather than “flight,” Dr. Vorster said.

Judge Masipa said on Wednesday that while it may not have been the defense’s intention, Dr. Vorster’s testimony raised a question of “criminal incapacity.” The judge quoted the doctor as saying that even though Mr. Pistorius appreciated the difference between right and wrong, “his ability to act in accordance with this” may have been affected by his disorder.

Dr. Vorster’s testimony “cannot replace a proper inquiry” to ensure that the athlete’s trial is fair, Judge Masipa added. Mr. Pistorius has denied a charge of premeditated murder, which carries a minimum jail term of 25 years. He says that he shot Ms. Steenkamp by mistake when he thought an intruder had entered his home in Pretoria.

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