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Pistorius Trial

Mind Over Matter: Pistorius Trial to Resume After Mental Evaluation

Image: Oscar Pistorius

Oscar Pistorius leaves the high court in Pretoria, South Africa, Tuesday, May 20, 2014. Pistorius is charged with murder for the shooting death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine's Day in 2013. Themba Hadebe / AP, file

For the past month, world-class athlete Oscar Pistorius has spent his days inside a high-security government psychiatric hospital, an imposing complex that is one of South Africa's biggest and oldest mental health institutions.

The South African Olympian is accused of gunning down his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, through a locked bathroom door in his home on Valentine's Day of last year. His murder trial was halted when a defense witness testified Pistorius suffers from a psychiatric condition that affects his perceptions of danger.

Pistorius has admitted to the shooting but pleaded not guilty to pre-meditated murder, alleging he mistook Steenkamp for an intruder.

On Monday, when the trial resumes, he'll be one day closer to finding out whether the next place he'll be spending time is prison.

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Here's where the case stands:

Where was Pistorius for the past month?

Pistorius, who is free on bail, arrived at Weskoppies Psychiatric Hospital in Pretoria on May 26 to begin a period of mental evaluation that the judge in his murder trial ordered.

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The requirement by Judge Thokozile Masipa that Pistorius be observed by a panel of four mental health experts for up to 30 days came after a psychiatrist called by the defense said she diagnosed him with generalized anxiety disorder. Dr. Merryll Vorster interviewed Pistorius twice in May and told the court that Pistorius had a long-standing fear of crime and felt vulnerable as an amputee. His anxiety could have shaped how he responded to perceived threats, she said, and may have been a factor when he fired at Steenkamp through the door with a 9 mm pistol on Feb. 14, 2013.

"When they called the psychiatrist, she was intonating that his anxiety disorder could amount to a mental illness," said William Booth, a criminal defense attorney in Cape Town, South Africa, who has been following the Pistorius trial. "And that is why he was referred to psychiatric evaluation. If there's any indication that the person might be mentally ill, either at the time or during the trial, the court is obliged to have them referred for mental observation, just to make sure."

Pistorius was in outpatient treatment at Weskoppies, arriving on weekdays at 9 a.m. and staying until 4 p.m. He had weekends off, per the judge's order, and was staying at his uncle's upscale Pretoria house.

Could Pistorius be declared mentally unstable when the trial resumes?

Yes. There are a number of possible outcomes from Pistorius' month-long mental health evaluation, which will be presented to court by the panel of experts appointed at the psychiatric hospital:

  • Experts could say Pistorius was not aware of what he did when he shot Steenkamp because of mental illness. They could also say they didn't find him fit to stand trial due to his mental state now. Both would bring the trial to an abrupt end and result in Pistorius being committed to a mental institution until he was ruled to no longer be a threat to the public.
  • He could be found to have diminished responsibility in the murder due to his anxiety disorder, which would mean the trial would continue but he could get a lesser sentence if he is found guilty.
  • The experts could disagree entirely with the psychiatrist that the defense called to the stand who raised the question of mental health in the first place, and the court will make its own finding based on testimony on Pistorius.
  • Or, the panel could ask for more time to evaluate Pistorius if they were unable to reach a decision after the 30-day evaluation period, and the trial would again be delayed. If they couldn't reach a unanimous decision but don't ask for more time, the court could launch a separate trial to determine whether Pistorius is mentally fit.

"Is he mentally fit to stand trial or was he mentally fit at the time when the incident happened, able to distinguish between right and wrong, and if not, was that caused by a mental illness or defect? That's the decision that they must make," Booth said.

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A further complication emerged last week when one of the doctors on the three-doctor panel evaluating Pistorius' mental health was hospitalized with chest pains.

Psychiatrist Dr. Leon Fine was admitted to the hospital Thursday and has received treatment, defense spokeswoman Anneliese Burgess told ABC News. It is not clear if the development will delay the proceedings further.

Where did the trial leave off?

Pistorius’ trial has been full of dramatic moments, including Pistorius sobbing uncontrollably and retching in the courtroom when photos of his dead girlfriend’s body were shown, soap opera-esque testimony from Pistorius’ ex-girlfriends, and Pistorius re-enacting the fatal shooting in court — without his prosthetic legs — at his defense lawyer’s request.

This latest pause was not the first big hiatus in the trial, which began on March 3. On May 5, the trial resumed after a 17-day break due to scheduling conflicts. It picked back up with the first person Pistorius called after the shooting: neighbor Johan Stander. Stander lived in the same gated community and arrived with his daughter at Pistorius' house shortly after Steenkamp was shot to death.

According to Stander, Pistorius called him early on Feb. 14, 2013, begging him to rush over.

"Please, please, please come to my house, I shot Reeva, I thought she was an intruder," Stander said Pistorius told him. "Please, please, please come quick!"

Stander said when he and his daughter got to Pistorius’ house, the athlete was carrying Steenkamp down the stairs.

"He was broken," Stander testified. "He was screaming, he was crying."

Stander’s daughter, Carice Viljoen, told the court there was "blood everywhere" when she walked inside the house. Through tears, she recalled running upstairs to grab towels to try to stop the bleeding while Pistorius knelt over Steenkamp’s body.

"He was praying to God the whole time," she told the court. "He kept on begging Reeva to just stay with him and not to leave him."

Other witnesses testified after Stander and his daughter, ballistic experts commented on the trajectory of the shots Pistorius fired, and then the questions over Pistorius' mental health were raised.

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How much prison time does Pistorius face?

Pistorius does not deny that he killed Steenkamp, but he claims the reason he shot her was because he thought she was an early-morning intruder, and felt vulnerable without his prosthetic legs. Prosecutors, on the other hand, contest that the couple had an argument, which led Pistorius to intentionally murder Steenkamp.

If the judge rules that Pistorius is guilty of murder, he faces a minimum of 15 to 25 years in prison. If he's convicted of a lesser charge — probable homicide or manslaughter, the negligent killing of somebody — he could get even less (or no) prison time, or he could simply get fines, community sentences, or correctional supervision.

A sentence is reduced if the court finds "substantial and compelling circumstances," Booth said. Evidence of an extreme anxiety disorder that could have affected his actions at the time of the killing, but didn't prevent him from knowing what he was doing, could be considered substantial and compelling, reducing his prison time.