Though doctors have confirmed Oscar Pistorius’ sanity on the night he fatally shot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, their conclusion does not necessarily equate to an ultimate ruling for or against his guilt in the matter. As court resumed on June 30 the prosecution read excerpts from the findings of psychological experts which will likely eliminate certain strategies or options for the defense, but the report does not come close to ensuring any particular outcome in the case.
On Valentine’s Day in 2013, Pistorius fatally shot Ms. Steenkamp from the opposite side of a closed door while she was in the bathroom. This fact is not being disputed in the case against him. What is being argued, however, is whether the act was intentional or accidental. Pistorius, who is a double amputee and a Paralympic athlete, has argued that he feared an intruder was in his house and shot through the closed door in fear for his life. The prosecution has argued that inconsistencies in the athlete’s recollection of events point to premeditation rather than an accidental shooting.
The full report from doctors at Weskoppies Psychiatric Hospital regarding the Paralympian’s sanity has not yet been released to the public and more details may yet surface. The court has indicated the public will not be granted access to the document until both the prosecution and defense have had the opportunity to review it fully and submit any requests related to it.
While the answer to the sanity question will not determine Pistorius’ guilt alone, the findings of the report may still equate to shifts in other aspects of Judge Thokozile Masipa’s verdict and/or sentencing. The doctors’ findings do eliminate the possibility of the amputee being found not guilty by reason of insanity, but several other possible rulings remain. A ruling of premeditated murder would ultimately require a sentencing of 25 years to life for the defendant but a ruling of culpable homicide could mean no prison time at all depending on the judge’s sentencing decision.
In addition to the introduction of the sanity ruling, there was additional testimony by Dr. Gerald Versfeld who was called by the defense to corroborate aspects of Pistorius’ original story of the sequence of events on the night in question. Versfeld specifically spoke to the amputee’s mobility and balance without the aid of prosthetic limbs. The defense has argued that after the shooting, the defendant returned to his bedroom to attach his prostheses before beating down the bathroom door with a cricket bat to discover he had shot Steenkamp. On the other hand, the prosecution has posited that Pistorius both shot Steenkamp and broke down the door while still walking only on his stumps.
Versefeld’s expert opinion at first seemed to poke holes in the case of the prosecution, but when prosecutor Gerrie Nel questioned him about the ability to balance on stumps while firing a handgun doubts surfaced about the defense as well. Versfeld had indicated it would be very difficult for Pistorius to fire the weapon without losing his balance, but Nel pointed out that he might have braced against a wall to steady himself. When the doctor confirmed that this would have enabled the amputee to maintain his balance, the prosecutor used this to imply that the athlete had consciously stabilized himself against the wall and therefore acted in a premeditated fashion.
Additional expert testimony about the ability of neighbors to clearly identify whether it was the victim or Pistorius they heard screaming on the night of the killing left similar questions regarding which version of the night’s events was accurate. Ultimately Pistorius’ guilt will not be determined until either the prosecution or the defense can sufficiently prove their story equates closest to the true sequence of events.
By David Morris