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Updated 02 March 2016

Oscar: The dog ate my homework

So how is Oscar faring under cross-examination? Not very well, says CyberShrink. Not very well at all.

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Oscar Pistorius seems to be caving in under cross-examination. Nel is a brilliant cross-examiner, and watching him at work is like watching a great violinist play, or a champion tennis player win game after game.

On the other hand, Pistorius has continued to provide an outstanding masterclass in precisely how not to handle cross-examination. Even those who used to support him and really want to believe him, are finding it harder and becoming irritated by how he's handling this.

Though he was surely well prepared by Advocate Roux and his team, he keeps trying to be his own lawyer, which is never a good idea. Instead of simply answering the questions, honestly and clearly, he evades, ducks and dives, lets his answers plunge into smokescreens of vagueness.

The best rule is: answer the question, and nothing else, and then shut up. The more extra material you add, the more you trip yourself up and the more openings you create for further unwelcome questions. Stick to the truth. That's hard enough to remember. In addition to their other disadvantages, lies are much harder to remember, and to keep consistent and co-ordinated. Remember if it can be shown convincingly that you are lying about anything significant, you cant un-lie.

Read: How to spot a liar

You can't say:" My lady I know all I said this morning was untrue, but this time please believe me." That's like a serial cheater expecting you to assume he was faithful when it suits him, or a serial killer insisting you can trust him as a baby-sitter.

Try not to let the advocate anger you, as that makes you careless. Some try to do this deliberately, if they notice this is a weakness of yours. Don't write and memorise speeches. Think through what you need to say in broad terms, but speak as freshly and spontaneously as you can, and always in your own words.

Expert witnesses
An expert witness is there to help the court understand complex technical matters within his or her recognised area of expertise, and is expected to give an informed opinion which he should back up with reference to research, experience and logical argument.

Read: Blood spatter analysis - what the experts are looking for

Roux insisted on showing the grocery store kiss video -  well, I still can't work out what on earth that was supposed to prove and was surprised the judge didn't challenge the procedure.

An expert witness tries to stay neutral, though this can be really hard when he or she is cross-examined by an advocate for the other side and who treats you as an enemy. Some lawyers don't understand this well enough.

Read: What Reeva's last meal says about the time she really went to bed

When I have been asked to appear as an expert witness in the past, I try to explain to to the lawyers that they can buy my time, but they can't buy my opinion.

It's important to know that there are some mercenaries in the professions and in academia who do indeed tailor their opinions to match the needs of whoever is paying them. But they should be exposed by a cross-examiner who has checked their previous evidence.

It is quite reasonable for experts to interpret evidence differently and it's up to the judge to choose which argument is the most convincing. Normally, a witness is expected to speak of facts: what you saw, heard, and did, and not to offer opinions. Sometimes, if what you say sounds odd or unbelievable, like some of Oscar's utterances, you may be asked to explain this.

If you don't know, say so, but be ready to explain why not, if its something you'd usually be expected to know. If you genuinely don't remember something, say so, but don't over-use this as an excuse. Oscar becomes highly unbelievable when he claims to remember in great detail, things he thinks are helpful to his case, and says he forgets things where he doesn't have a ready, evasive answer.

Channel 199's dubious experts
The Oscar Pistorius Trial channel has continued to provide some outstanding commentary on the case, especially from their legal experts who have been accurate, relevant, entertaining and helpful - something rarely seen on TV.

But with one exception, their "psychological" commentators have been deplorable: usually banal and boring, lacking impressive expertise, and shedding no useful insight into the events or the case at all. The delicious exception has been Dr Leonard Carr, who has been remarkable on his every appearance. He's very well informed, thoughtful, clear, helpful and useful. They shouldn't waste time asking any of the others to return.

One repeated exhibition of gross ignorance that has bothered me throughout, is that several of the presenters - clearly misled by bad research - have insisted on asking guests about "Post Traumatic Stress", an entirely mythical condition which has never existed at all.

Indeed, when some of the guests accept the invitation and spoke of the fake diagnosis, they proved that they absolutely lack any genuine expertise in this field.

I put it to you, folks: there is a very real and significant condition called PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

This is a Disorder (defined and expert recognised illness) which arises post (after) someone has experienced traumatic stress which is a very serious degree of stress. If there ever were something you might even think of calling post-traumatic stress, that would have to be something stressful happening after something traumatic occurred. Maybe if, after surviving a train crash, a clumsy ambulance man tramped on your foot.

So next time you hear someone use this silly expression, boo and hiss loudly and ignore anything else they may say.

Bring on the shrinks!
I have said from the start, there is a clear need for good psychiatric evidence in this case. The more peculiarly Oscar performs the more tempting this is, but lets be clear what a shrink might contribute. Sometimes the issue is the accused's state of mind at the time of the offence - was he perhaps sick to the point that he didn't know what he was doing ?

This should have been raised from the very start if his lawyers had really believed it to be relevant. Nothing in the evidence thus far suggests this issue.

But there could be something here. There could have been a degree of brain injury in the boating accident that was mentioned, and especially in someone who might already have shown a hasty temper and sometimes impaired self-control, such neurological damage can make them excessively impulsive and more liable to respond in an extreme way to frustration or anger.

This might be very relevant to these charges, and would need a careful neurological and psychiatric assessment by experts from both sides.

What is not needed at all would be evidence from someone with an old-fashioned psycho-analytical viewpoint, seeking to interpret the events through an unscientific model still not validated properly after all these years. And especially so if they try to explain away what happened, implying somehow that the accused couldn't help himself other than to do whatever he did.

Sometimes a shrink can identify faking or exaggeration, and even diagnose normality. It's also useful to counteract simplistic and naíve assumptions made by presenters and reporters. Such as when they say "Oscar again could not control his emotions". What we see is that often he does not control his emotions, but there's so far no convincing evidence that he cannot do so.

Major inconsistencies
Last week Oscar seemed to be circling and toying with a claim that he was dissociated through his irrational fear of intruders that he couldn't take responsibility for what he did. His describing the shooting as "accidental" is confusing the issue.

Watch: Criminal law expert William Booth says Oscar Pistorius is incriminating himself (News24.com)

What he really seems to be claiming (inconsistently) is, rather, that it was not deliberate or fully intentional. But his descriptions don't genuinely sound like dissociation or lack of intention so much as desperate attempts to find some excuse, to avoid taking responsibility.

The claim to an extreme degree of fear of intrusion and violence doesn't match his otherwise cavalier and sloppy attitude towards home security.

Read: How to overcome excessive fear of becoming a victim of crime

Anyone so terrified could not sleep with windows open, with an unreliable and limited alarm system possibly switched off, with no burglar bars on any windows, and with the car parked in the driveway and not even locked in the garage. Why hasn't he been asked about the evidence of Samantha, his ex, who said that when he heard something at night, he woke her and asked her if she had also heard it?

How different his life would have been if he had been as sensible as to do the same thing with Reeva.

The sad and frightened little boy
Even though his explanations and contorted attempts to explain away his responsibility for what happened are becoming increasingly far-fetched and fragmentary, there is something very moving in his very desperation.

Behind the performance and the possible manipulation, is a strong sense of a frightened little boy, who may have done something awfully naughty one night, and is scared of the punishment to follow.

Read: How to deal with an absent father

One wonders about his childhood experiences, despite what he describes as a loved and loving mother, and how he was treated by his father as regards discipline and simply making errors.

I have rarely if ever come across a father who chose not to appear in court when his child was on trial, and who refused to even sign a statement for the police about the ammunition charges.

This father's absence is ever-present, and his silence is deafening.

(Professor MA Simpson, CyberShrink, Copyright: Michael A Simpson, 2014, Health24 CyberShrink

Image: POOL / REUTERS

Read more:

How the police made a mess of the crime scene
Did Reeva look like Oscar's mother?
Do you also find the Oscar Pistorius trial confusing?
Is Oscar Pistorius emotionally incontinent, or has he lost the plot?
Ask CyberShrink your pressing questions

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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