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Professor Wayne Derman, an expert witness for the defense has told the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria that Oscar Pistorius intended to shoot the person behind his toilet door when he fired four rounds at the door in the early hours of Valentine’s Day last year. That person was his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, and she died as a result of the shooting. Pistorius, who has been charged with the murder of Miss Steenkamp, has pleaded not guilty to the charge, arguing in his defense that he believed the person on the other side of the toilet door was an intruder and that his life was in danger.
Prof. Derman, who took the stand last Wednesday, is a registered medical practitioner and a sport and exercise physician who was doctor for the South African paralympic team when they competed in London in 2012. The focus of his testimony last week was the vulnerability of the accused and how he had no choice but to take the fight option (rather than flee) when he was confronted by the threat of danger in his home that night. This, he said, was because Pistorius is disabled. Derman also described in detail how “a startle” is the stimulus that triggers the so-called “flight or fight response.”
His cross-examination by state advocate Gerrie Nel continued this morning, with Nel attempting to negate his credibility as an expert witness, and accusing him of having a bias towards Oscar Pistorius. Nel also asked the professor if he had ever considered that the accused’s version of that night’s events might have been a lie. “Obviously I have,” said Derman. Acknowledging that there were two sides to the case, he said he had attempted to be as objective as possible and had backed up everything he had said with scientific evidence. “I do not think I am biased.”
Demonstrations of Pistorius Running on His Stumps
Although there was no reference in court to a video screened in Australia yesterday (Sunday) that showed Pistorius re-enacting the killing, and “running” on his stumps, the issue of Pistorius running on his stumps was again referred to by Nel. Last Thursday Derman told the court that he was concerned about references Pistorius had made about running during his evidence earlier this year. Because of this he had asked the famous “blade runner” to demonstrate on his stumps how he ran – or had been able to run.
There was also argument today about how and when Pistorius had run on February 14, 2013. Today Derman could not say whether Pistorius had held his hand against the wall while running, although he had done this while walking during the demonstration, he said. He also was not sure whether Pistorius held his hand out in front of him like a gun. In the controversial video, this is what he is seen doing, in spite of the fact that in his own evidence Pistorius testified that he held his arm low and had his arm bent by his side when he went towards the toilet door.
The Flight or Fight Response
Nel went back to the fight/flight argument this morning and suggested to Derman that it was “a valuable survival response” that would make an individual stronger, more alert and better able to either flee or stay and fight. Derman agreed that the flight or fight response could result in a person running faster, having more power and also showing increased vigilance. He also agreed that the flight or fight response is a normal physiological response. Asked if given the circumstances as described by Pistorius that there would have been an option for him to flee, or even walk out of the room, Derman said there was “indeed” this option. He also agreed that it would have been “possible” for Pistorius to hide in the bedroom from the perceived threat.
Professor Derman again described the startle response that he said was “very, very rapid” and which resulted in the eyes blinking and the body going into flexion. He said the brain was aware of the startle and would assess the surroundings; if they matched then you would get the fight or flight response. Pushed to reiterate the three startles described to him by Pistorius, Derman said the first was the bathroom window opening; the second was the toilet door closing; and the third a sound that came from inside the toilet that Pistorius had told him was a wooden magazine rack. However, he was not prepared to comment on Pistorius’ responses to these three sounds saying he was dealing with physiological responses and not legal aspects. He conceded that Pistorius said nothing to him about the toilet door opening or of hearing any type of movement inside the toilet cubicle.
Derman confirmed that Oscar Pistorius had fired at the sound he heard inside the toilet cubicle “to nullify any threat” from the burglar he believed was lurking behind the toilet door. He also said confidently, “As I understand it, it was his intention to shoot.”
Reports by Psychiatrists and a Psychologist
Last week the reports compiled by a psychologist and three psychiatrists appointed to represent the court, the state, and the defense were handed into court. These were the result of the 30-day evaluation period Pistorius underwent last month to ascertain whether or not he was able to appreciate whether what he had done by shooting and killing Reeva Steenkamp was right or wrong. It was found that he was aware, and that he was not suffering from a mental defect. On Thursday the media was prohibited from publishing information from the psychologist’s report, though Judge Thokozile Masipa later reversed the ruling following an agreement between the defense legal team and media lawyers. She confirmed this reversal in court this morning. In the meantime much of the report has already been published.
On Friday last week Gerrie Nel met with one of the three psychiatrists, Dr. Carla Kotze, who was appointed for the state. She was in court at his side this morning. In a surprise request, Barry Roux, advocate for the accused, said he wanted the opportunity to consult with Dr. Kotze. Nel objected and said that the defense had already consulted with Dr. L. Fine who was the psychiatrist appointed for the defense. “They cannot have a bite at every psychiatrist on the panel,” said Nel. He also told the court that he had not yet decided whether he would ask to reopen his case so that he could call Dr Kotze as a witness, but would probably do so if the defense called Dr. Fine. Roux said they did not intend to call Dr. Fine. After a short adjournment Judge Masipa ruled that the defense could not have “an entitlement to consult with her (Dr. Kotze) just because she is in court.” She went on to rule that the defense may not consult with Dr. Kotze.
Roux said that it was probable he would close the defense case tomorrow. Once the case is closed, and if the state does not chose to ask for their case to be reopened, both sides will prepare argument that will be heard by Judge Masipa and her two assessors. Thereafter the court (Judge Masipa and her assessors) will make a judgment on whether Oscar Pistorius is guilty of murder as charged. At this stage there is still the possibility that he could be acquitted of murder, even if he did intend to shoot the person behind his toilet door on Valentine’s Day.
By Penny Swift
Guardian Liberty Voice