The North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria has heard that the famous blade-runner, Oscar Pistorius is a vulnerable and anxious person who is hyper-vigilant, gets angry, and if not treated clinically, could possibly become suicidal. This highly complex picture of the man accused of murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp in the early hours of Valentine’s Day last year, has emerged during the last leg of the defense case that he shot her thinking she was an intruder. The state maintains that the Olympian athlete shot her in cold blood.
Evidence of Pistorius’ vulnerability, anxiety and hyper-vigilance was given by two of his doctors this week, while the idea that he may become suicidal, was noted by a psychologist who observed and tested him while at Weskoppies Psychiatric Hospital last month. His anger was highlighted during cross-examination of his manager in court this week.
The Psychologist’s and Psychiatrists’ Reports
Handed into court on Monday morning, the lengthy psychologist’s report was compiled by Prof. Jonathan Scholtz, head of Clinical Psychology at Weskoppies. A portion of it was referred to by the defense advocate Barry Roux yesterday who stated that it indicated Oscar Pistorius had a severe post-traumatic stress disorder and that the degree of anxiety he suffered from was “significant.” He said that the report stated Pistorius was mourning the loss of Reeva Steenkamp and that if he did not get “proper clinical care” he could become suicidal.
The report also stated that Prof. Scholtz had not found any evidence of aggressive or explosive violence in his personality and that he was not narcissistic. The “style” of conflict resolution he used was to remove himself from the situation. There was also evidence that indicated he had a history of feeling both vulnerable and insecure, especially when he was not wearing his prosthesis, the report said. Additionally, he relied on “instant appraisal” rather than the “flight or fight” response that has been a focal part of evidence throughout the trial. His response to any physical threat was “normal” for any disabled person. Ultimately, Prof. Scholtz found that Pistorius’ anxieties were not sufficient to meet the criteria for general anxiety disorder (GAD), and that he was capable of appreciating the wrongfulness of his actions.
State advocate Gerrie Nel said that the much shorter report compiled by three psychiatrists, Dr. L Fine for the defense, Prof. H.W. Pretorius for the court, and Dr. Carla Kotze for the state, showed that he currently has an “adjustment disorder” that is mixed with moods and anxiety, but this had developed after the offence. It “did not affect his ability to act in appreciation of the rightful or wrongful nature of his deeds.”
Both reports were released to the media yesterday. However, after an application by the defense to prohibit their release into the “public domain,” due to “personal and intimate information” that was included in Prof. Scholtz’s report, Judge Thokozile Masipa ruled that publication of the contents of these exhibits be prohibited from that moment (3 pm South African time on Wednesday July 2, or 6 am PMT.) The ruling excluded any information that had already been put on record (including that reported above), the findings of the reports, and anything published prior to 3 pm.
At the close of proceedings today, Nel said he had organized to consult with Dr. Kotze tomorrow (Friday July 4) “in line with the technical information we are dealing with,” and asked that the case be postponed until Monday. He was not sure whether or not he would need to call her as a witness.
Freeze, Flight or Fight in the Face of Danger
Oscar Pistorius’ vulnerability, hyper-vigilance and anxiety have been the focus of evidence throughout the trial that began in March this year. These issues were highlighted earlier this week, and again today by Prof. Wayne Derman, a medical practitioner and sports and exercise physician who has attended the athlete for six years. Presented as an expert witness, he took the stand yesterday and has spent hours over the two days giving long, laborious testimony about distress, depression and other psychological issues that affect disabled people in general, and disabled athletes in particular.
Examined by defense advocate, Kenny Oldwadge, he said the Pistorius’ “psychological distress markers” were higher than those of other disabled athletes he had tested, and that Oscar Pistorius was hyper-vigilant in all situations, even during one-on-one consultations. He noted that when fireworks were included during opening and closing sports events, Pistorius would have an “excessive response,” covering his head and ears until the noise stopped.
During yesterday’s evidence, Prof. Derman attempted to include evidence about two people who had disabilities, one of whom was a thalidomide baby. This resulted in an objection from Gerrie Nel who said it was hearsay. In spite of a passionate argument from Oldwadge, who clearly anticipated the objection, and who maintained that hearsay evidence was allowable in this instance, Judge Masipa refused to allow the evidence. She said it was obvious that the evidence of these two people could not be relevant because what they offered was their own experiences and nothing relating to the accused and the murder of Reeva Steenkamp.
In addition to in-depth evidence concerning the brain and how it works, much of his evidence focused on the so-called flight and fight response. This concept has been used throughout the trial to explain why Pistorius headed towards danger when he heard a noise in his bathroom in the early hours of February 14 last year, rather than leaving the room with Reeva and activating the alarm system. Prof. Derman explained that it was a “caveman response” that prepares man for coping with a predator. He said blood pressure increases; the muscles “liberate as many fuels as possible” shutting down blood supply to parts of the body and diverting them to muscles; the body “thermo-regulates” so that sweating is facilitated; the hairs on the body stand up on end; and the pupils of the eye dilate so that as much light as possible is allowed to enter the eye. While we all have a flight and fight response in situations of danger, he said that he had seen an exaggerated response in some people, including those with disabilities.
Apart from flight or fight being an issue in the face of danger, Prof. Derman said it was “absolutely necessary” for all types of physical exercise and activity. “We need that sympathetic response to allow us to exercise.” However, to be able to “sprint out of harm’s way,” it would need an “exaggerated response to allow us to get there.” He then added the concept of “a startle,” which he defined as the stimulus that initiates the flight or fight response, as well as a “startle” and a “freeze” concept. He said in evidence that the first noise Pistorius heard – a window in the bathroom – was the auditory stimulus that triggered the “flight or fight response.” Asked by Oldwadge why he fired his gun instead of trying to flee the scene to safety, Prof. Derman said Pistorius did not have an option because he was on his stumps. The only other option, he maintained, was for Pistorius to fight – which was an “understandable physiological phenomenon.”
Prof. Derman also said that while Oscar Pistorius was one of the 15th or 18th fastest people in the world (of all able-bodied individuals) his disability played a very negative role in his life. He said he had been studying this for six years and did not really understand it himself. He believed only those who had a “lived experience of disability” would know what it felt like. So when we see Oscar Pistorius raise his hands in triumph after a race in fact, he said, it was not because he had won the raise, but because he had triumphed against his disability. When you are disabled, the professor said, “disability impacts nearly every aspect of ones life.”
“The saddest thing I have found is that disability never sleeps. It affects nearly every aspect of your life. Prof. Wayne Derman
Today’s evidence readdressed the freeze, flight or fight response in cross-examination by Gerrie Nel who attempted to ascertain where each of these elements kicked in on February 14, 2013. Prof. Derman agreed that the first sound (or trigger) related to a window in the Pistorius bathroom. Cross examination by Nel took Prof. Derman in circles, saying he couldn’t understand questions, refusing to answer questions, and even arguing with Judge Masipa, which as Nel pointed out would not help his credibility as a witness. He did though say that the window sound prompted the “first startle” that led to a freeze (“he said ‘I froze’.”) But when Nel tried to get him to commit to where the flight or fight response fitted in after this point, he could not explain this. He conceded that Pistorius had gone from the freeze to get his gun, a move that Nel maintained took thought. There was also argument between Nel and Derman regarding Pistorius’ evidence that he had run at some stage on that fateful night.
Prof. Derman said that he was confused when he read in the court record that Pistorius had “run” and asked him for a second interview to ascertain what he meant. He said he was clear in his own mind that Pistorius was not running in a way that able-bodied people would run (because this would mean he would have had to have both feet off the ground), but rather moving in an “ungainly” manner, using very short strides. It was agreed that both parties would readdress this issue when court resumes on Monday next week. Prof. Derman was unable to clarify how the rest of the flight and fight scenario played out in terms of what caused further responses and when. He conceded that in terms of the second “startle” his memory was “a bit fuzzy” and said he needed to consult the court records. But in terms of the third sound, he did say that Pistorius had “fired at the sound,” and that this was probably to “nullify a threat.”
The Angry Oscar
While Oscar Pistorius’s doctors, who gave evidence this week (namely orthopedic surgeon Dr. Gerry Versveld and sports and exercise physician Prof. Wayne Derman) did not address an anger factor, anger did become an issue during testimony by the blade runner’s manager, Peet van Zyl earlier in the week. Specifically the idea erupted during cross-examination of van Zyl regarding a request by Pistorius’ roommate that an international event in London be moved from the room that they shared. The issue focused on an article that Nel said he had read that stated room-mate Arnu Fourie had asked to change rooms because he could not cope with the way Pistorius constantly argued angrily with people on his cellphone.
Overnight Fourie tweeted that he had moved out of the room because he needed to focus prior to the 100 m final race, and for this reason wanted to be in the isolation room if it was available. He said this was “one of the most important races” of his life, and he therefore wanted to “rest and recover well in preparation for the race.” He also said that he cherished “all the moments” that he and Pistorius had shared at “the London Games.” Peet van Zyl mentioned the tweet yesterday and it was admitted as evidence.
What was not admitted as evidence (or even submitted as evidence) was the original interview with South African journalist David O’Sullivan, or his article that was published in a UK newspaper last February, shortly after Oscar Pistorius killed Reeva Steenkamp. In this article O’Sullivan said that he had asked Fourie what it was like sharing a room with Pistorius. “He told me he had been forced to move out, because Oscar was constantly screaming in anger at people on the phone. I thought Fourie was joking and waited for him to smile. But he was serious. I was taken aback. I had never thought of Oscar behaving like that.” This has not so far been entered as evidence in the current murder trial of Pistorius.
The trial has been adjourned until Monday July 7. Cross-examination of Prof. Derman will continue, and thereafter there may be other witnesses for either side. This is not yet clear. But what we do know is that very soon the two sides will gear up to argue whether or not Oscar Pistorius – vulnerable, anxious, angry, hyper-vigilant, or even suicidal – is guilty of the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.
By Penny Swift