Updated 21 May 2014

Oscar Trial: The shrink has shrunk

The latest witness to be called in Oscar Pistorius's defence was forensic psychiatrist Merryl Vorster. Cybershrink dissects her evidence.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, Roux pops up with a psychiatric witness. And I’ll bet he wishes he hadn’t!

I said all along that such evidence would be needed, though as no psychiatrically-based defence had been claimed, the sensible thing would have been to call the shrink AFTER the verdict, and before sentencing, to help the court understand Oscar better, and as a basis for a plea for lenient sentencing.

Yet again, the gang with only left feet, blundered, calling her too early. Dr Vorster was the first genuinely-expert witness the Defence has called for what feels like ages, and she did what had been asked of her, well.

Read: Have we all been punked by the Oscar trial?

She seems to have been called into the defence very late, only a few days ago. This may be why she’s not followed the case very closely, in court and especially on TV, as I’m sure she would have done had she been involved earlier. On several points I could fault her evidence, especially where she stated as a fact that the amputation of his legs when he was just 11 months old, and pre-verbal, would be perceived by an infant as a traumatic assault.

It is precisely because a child is pre-verbal and unable to report how they experience such events, we cannot possibly know that, it’s simply a guess. It’s not just the child’s inability to express such an extremely complex concept as “traumatic assault,” a child also needs a considerable amount of life experience before being capable of forming and owning such concepts, and before that is achieved, they can’t perceive an interpretation of events they don’t understand or have.

Her idea is at best a theory, not a fact. A great many children undergo surgery and other trauma at an early age, and hardly any of them grow up to shoot people.

Read: Inside Oscar's fanatical support group

She claimed significance for, and used, the claim that Oscar’s mother suffered from anxiety (though whether at the level of an actual disorder, rather than as a natural and sadly normal response to being left alone to bring up children on her own after her husband disappeared, is not clear).  

Yet she made no comment at all on Oscar’s father, who is said to have walked out on his wife and children, quarrelled with them, has failed to even appear in Court and refused to even sign an affidavit to assist Oscar in his trial. Is it not possible that the father might have a relevant disorder, perhaps a personality disorder, which Oscar might have inherited or been influenced by?

Shooting Oscar in the foot?

I notice she made the diagnosis without referring to the usual internationally accepted criteria for doing so, hence we can’t be sure how she reached that opinion. She did, usefully, rule out automatism, which Oscar has quite often implied in his excuses. She also agreed that on arming himself, he must have foreseen that he might shoot someone.

He said to her that he wanted to shoot an intruder and was upset that the victim had been Reeva and not an intruder. What stunned me was that she seemed to readily agree with Mr. Nel’s suggestion that a person with Anxiety Disorder could be a danger to society, when I’m not aware of any evidence that they’re any more dangerous than the rest of us, not even geologists.

Read: Yawn, yawn, snooze. Oscar's defence potters around

Again, the very late timing of the report is highly significant, and she doesn’t seem to have considered this. Her headline conclusion was that Oscar frequently expressed remorse to her, which is exactly what the Defence is anxious to establish. But she only saw him after his lengthy cross-examination when his failure to express remorse had been much emphasized.

For him to then emphasize it when seeing a psychiatrist is evidence that he can spot what he needs to say, rather than convincing evidence of true remorse. Broadly, she accepted uncritically every statement and claim Oscar made.

She claimed, uniquely, that distinguishing between “I killed her” and “I caused her death” was a purely legal concept, though psychologists could see significant differences here. She reported that he had taken greatly increased security measures, when the evidence so far is that he was surprisingly lax about such measures.

Read: Do you need Oscar to be innocent?

She said he locked his bedroom door, which is the first anyone in court has heard of this. She also assumed that his anxiety was due to a long-standing Anxiety Disorder, rather than being situational, due to being on trial for murder with a stumbling and failing defence.

I think she said she had not discussed how he felt about the trial or the prospect of prison. Isn’t this rather like the person who asked his wife, after President Lincoln had been assassinated in Ford’s Theatre, “Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how was the play?“

Mr Roux Develops Anxiety 

But then Mr Nel brilliantly flummoxed Mr Roux by insisting on taking this sudden introduction of a psychiatric diagnosis which Dr Vorster agreed might have influenced him at the time of the offense, very seriously indeed. He announced he would apply to the court to send Oscar to a mental hospital for 30 days observation to produce a report for the case.

If you’ve ever seen a man desperately back peddling, it was Roux, who definitely doesn’t want this to happen. He was not himself well-informed about the implications of the diagnosis and tried to insist that an illness was not a disorder, or vice versa, and got confused with a mental defect, which doesn’t at all apply here.

Read: Should Oscar go to a mental hospital?

He seemed to feel that such referrals were a form of punishment inflicted after the psychiatrist had found that the accused was incapable of telling right from wrong or acting accordingly, rather than recognizing it as a mechanism for investigating and clarifying those very issues to benefit the court’s decisions.

Mr Nel may just be enjoying some brinksmanship, as it’s not clear whether sending Oscar off for psychiatric observation will greatly help the prosecution. Or maybe he wants to pre-empt some Defence move to change the plea again, or to claim undue mitigation. Either way, he’s put the cat among the pigeons or perhaps that should be put a pigeon among the cats.

Read more:
Did Reeva look like Oscar's mother?
Was the break good or bad for Oscar?
Why was Oscar vomiting?

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Health24

Professor MA Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. A South African psychiatrist, he qualified in medicine and in psychiatry in Britain. He has been a senior academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries. Read more of his columns.




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