Updated 16 July 2014

Who's nuts: Oscar or his defence?

Health24's CyberShrink, Prof Michael Simpson, observes that Oscar Pistorius' defence has dug a nice hole for themselves with Dr Vorster's very precise evidence.

So the Judge has, wisely, decided to send Oscar for observation and the preparation of an expert report.

In the situation created by the defence’s clumsy tactics, she had little alternative.

Nel argued brilliantly for this move, and caught Roux in his own trap. Roux needlessly created this option by calling a psychiatric witness so very late, who after a very brief assessment, made a diagnosis and claimed it could be relevant to Oscar’s state of mind at the time of the shooting.

As the judge so astutely pin-pointed, the defence’s objections to this logical consequence of evidence they chose to lead, was peculiar.

If Roux is confident of the claims he has made about Oscar, he should be delighted that this assessment should confirm it all and greatly help his case.

That he doesn’t see it that way, and his very vigorous and anxious back-pedalling suggested he did not, speaks volumes about a tricky defence strategy gone wrong.

Nel cleverly planted two significant cautions, too, reminding the judge that should she refuse his application, the Appeal Court might be concerned and even order it on Appeal (no judge likes the idea of their ruling giving any grounds for appeal); and floating the idea that the client might choose to replace Roux, and a new defence advocate might think differently.

Nel was likely to win either way

He’d gain the advantages of the observation period for which he had himself no grounds for asking, until Roux helped him there; or, in refusing the application, the judge would need to give strong and explicit reasons for doing so, making it difficult for the defence to use Oscar’s psychological state in their arguments.

Now that the observation order has been granted (only awaiting some house-keeping such as finding a bed in the appropriate units at Weskoppies or Sterkfontein) he gets an expert panel to examine Oscar thoroughly.

They may well cast doubts on the diagnosis (especially the bizarre claim that it could have been present his entire life) and particularly on the relevance of this or any other psychological factors to the essence of this case. All their findings will have to be open to him to scrutinize and use, too.

Read: What's this about 30 days observation in a mental hospital?

Problems with Vorster’s evidence

As Dr Vorster’s evidence drew to a close, she seemed to cautiously revise some of her assertions of the day before.

Having agreed that people with GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder) were dangerous, which would be a ridiculous idea, she now said they were not usually so, but could be dangerous if armed with a gun!

What was still hard to understand was her certainty (Dr Vorster doesn’t DO uncertainty) that he’d been suffering from severe anxiety. Indeed GAD, since 11 months old.

She seemed to be using an old trick beloved by analysts. If you say you’re anxious, they’re right, you have an anxiety disorder. If you say nothing, you’re just covering and hiding that disorder, and they’re still right.

If you insist that you’re really not anxious at all, they’re still right, because you’re just denying your anxiety. If you seem to be coping really well, it must be merely an illusion: It’s “superficial coping”.

Read: What is Generalised Anxiety Disorder?

You can’t win

She asserted that children who’ve had such major surgery in their first year grow up differently from other children, without explaining in what particular ways, and without quoting any research whatsoever, which may have demonstrated this after actually studying growing children.

She’s one of those experts who don’t feel the need to quote research or the opinion of other experts to support their own views, satisfied that their ideas are just fine.

She seemingly assumed that his parents encouraging him to be “as normal as possible” must have been damaging and a cause of anxiety, which is far from necessarily so.

She seems to have chosen to ignore his very peculiar situation: a man on trial for murder and facing the ruination of his lifestyle and ambitions, can’t be properly assessed without carefully considering this over-riding factor. She referred to it as “not a factor” and “not critical”.

Read: Dr Merryl Vorster - the shrink that shrunk 

She defers excessively to the judge, dodging things which really are within her field of expertise and where she should have been helping the judge, repeating the mantra “ that’s for the court to decide”.

She wasn’t bothered that his version in court was different from what he told her. “Maybe he forgot” she said, very oddly, before retreating.

When Nel suggested Oscar might have been lying, she ignored that possibility. A psychiatrist might decide to believe what his patient says, but especially in a forensic assessment, one must always at least consider the possibility that things are not necessarily as they seem.

Read: How to spot a liar

Vorster’s assertion, demonstrating his GAD, that Oscar adopted excessive security precautions was shown to be amazingly unrealistic, labelling routine precautions adopted by every South African who can afford them, as “excessive”.

Her most incredible claim was that she knows precisely how an 11-month old child thinks and sees life.

She gave no proper basis for diagnosing the presence of GAD prior to her personal assessment, and certainly not in the years preceding the killing.

She didn’t have a copy of the State’s case, and didn't ask for one; she saw solely people selected by the defence team.

This is not how to produce a neutral, objective and unbiased report, and that is the duty of an expert witness.

Though she read other reports they gave her, she carefully insisted that she had in no way “relied on them” in her own report, which denied Nel the right to ask to see them, too.

Overall, recent events have demonstrated that sometimes people can be a bit too clever, and trip themselves up.

Read more:

Why was Oscar vomiting in court?
Has Oscar Pistorius lost the plot?
Do you hope Oscar is innocent, or do you need him to be innocent?
We've been punked - the Oscar trial gets truly ridiculous
Professor Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. Ask him your questions about mental health.

*Opinions in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of

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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