Thoughts as Oscar Pistorius Trial Resumes Today June 30th


Oscar Pistorius gold medalThe Oscar Pistorius Trial resumes today  & psychiatric reports, as yet unread in full by the judge,  conclude, as we might have expected , that  he is not suffering from any serious mental health condition which would have impaired his ability to distinguish right from wrong at the time  and is also fit to face the continuation of his trial.

I can imagine that many of Oscar Pistorius’s supporters may be alarmed at this summary result ; the  much anticipated outcome of the extensive psychiatric testing which the athlete has undergone in the last few  weeks at the Weskoppies Psychiatric Hospital in Pretoria yet it should come as no surprise that the main finding is that he was not suffering from any significant mental health  disorder which would have impaired his ability to judge right from wrong. We should not, I believe ,  be concerned that both defence and prosecution have accepted that main conclusion and yet we should note that the Judge has yet to read the actual report which is likely to shed light on the athlete’s state of mind on that fateful night in its detailed analysis of the athlete’s personality and mind set as yet to be publicly revealed. The clinic’s brief was very specific asked to establish if at the time the athlete was suffering from an anxiety disorder which might be mitigating in terms of assessing his guilt.

But we should remember that such clinics, I maintain , ( having personally  suffered in the past from work related anxiety and depression  which at the time needed medical intervention and counselling and was complelty debiliating for some six months)   assess , treat and deal from day to day with people suffering from the extremes of mental conditions which most of us are affected by at some time in our lives  and normally cope with , but which do not meet the criteria proscribed by the medical profession to be in a place on the spectrum beyond the normal and making those serious or as the medical profession call, clinical mental health conditions . These  are by definition, the  ongoing serious health issues that radically affect a person’s personality and everyday functioning. Anxiety is a fact of everyday life , and it is relative to a person’s tolerance thresholds and also contextual  and most of us manage our anxiety reasonably comfortably most of the time .   But , we also experience times of increased stress and fear which push us over our normal tolerance threshold and this can impair our functioning albeit temporarily until the threat is diminished or disappears.  Fear of personal harm , for example , induces temporary  involuntary chemical and biological changes in the body and brain and for example ,  automatically puts rational judgement temporarily on hold , as the body gears up for the so called” flight or fight”  response and hence a person at times of exrtreme stress may not be able to fully recall or give an entirely rational explanation of their immediaate actions.  I have no problem believing it is perfectly reasonable that Oscar has no serious mental health issues but that, he experienced exceptional stress as a reaction , and to my mind a  perfectly reasonable one, to an exceptional yet perceived life threatening situation.

We often make presumptions, because elite Paralympians achieve so much , about the realities of their everyday lives coping with disability.

We often make presumptions, because elite Paralympians achieve so much , about the realities of their everyday lives coping with disability.

What I find more relevant and encouraging  is how after the brief summary of the report was put to court and the defence and prosecution accepted its main finding ,  the defence now turned its attention today  to the area that so many of us have probably taken very much for granted and yet I believe it is hugely relevant and vital that it becomes public knowledge and informs  the proceedings.  I am surprised it was not made an issue much sooner in the procedings.  It no doubt challenges some of the  misconceptions members of the public have regarding elite athletes who have major disabilities and whose very public achievements in sport may give us a very rose-tinted view of the everyday realities those people face living with a disability day in day out and away from the track or field. Nobody is better qualified to offer testimony regarding Oscar’s balance and functioning on his stumps and with conventional  prosthetics he uses for everyday functioning than the orthopaedic surgeon Dr Gerald Versfeld who amputated the athlete’s legs as a child.  The surgeon gave convicing testimony to the effect that Oscar was far less stable walking on those legs than perhaps we might imagine and also attested to the discomort and pain he has to cope with due to stump pads slipping. He also gave vital evidence as to how Oscar could find his legs in poor light andd his ability to walk normally while, for example holding a weapon or moving a piece of furniture like the fan and offer his judgements of what he would and likely would not be able to do wirthout those artificial legs to hand.  

Oscar Pistorius kneeling on his blades

Oscar kneeling on his famous racing blades but what are the everyday realities for him wearing other more conventional prosthetics & what is involved in for example, maintaining the health of his stumps, avoiding infection and for example balance and other issues all of which are pertinent to this trial?

Because of Oscar’s exceptional take on his own disability and his extraordinary  achievement we make a number of presumptions that, for example , as a  double amputee athlete, he has  to hand ,  technology in the shape of a series of  tailor-made state of the art prosthetic legs which he simply attaches effortlessly to the two stumps  depending on what activity he is going to be engaged in. Furthermore we may think that the health of each stump is constant, requires little medical intervention and or any rigorous care regime and  that both stumps are of equal integrity. We probably presume that balance on and off the track is equal on each leg whereas Oscar has given testimony that this is not the case and that keeping balance is not as straightforward as we might think. Coupled to that we are not privy to seeing or knowing anything about the athlete when he is without his prosthetics or for example his dressing routines or the effort it very likely takes on a day to day basis to ensure equal  health and integrity of the flesh around the bone endings that constitute both those stumps. Prosthetics of course  have a cosmetic function  to disquise the absence of limbs or parts of limbs and also have specific features to fulfil most of the functions we take for granted but prosthetic legs  also have an important role in enabling a person to walk amongst and stand face to face with others and that must play a huge part of a person’s personal confidence, sense of well being and security.

For me , it is ridiculous to hold the view that a man, a double amputee, famous or not , who has divested himself of  his artificial legs and gone to bed, is awaken in the night unexpectedly , hears a noise and not unreasonably  fears an armed  home intrusion ( given that such crimes are now quite commonplace in RSA now and on the increase ) and yet  awakes with  in the same frame of mind a fully abled bodied person would and will act compleltey rationally and to the letter of the law. We know that  the Police’s  and therefore Prosecution’s had a vested  interest in making the presumption, ( and in fact perpetuating the lie for sometime before having to withdraw it) that Oscar took  the fatal shots at the door wearing his prosthetic legs because it reinforces their initial presumptive  view that this was a premeditated killing as it would have appeared had the athlete taken the time to dress his legs before the shooting. If we accept his fear of the actual presence of a likely armed intruder is reasonable, as I think we must ,  we must also accept that, without his artificial legs, in that context and those circumstances , he is most likely to have felt extremely anxious and vulnerable , be quite reasonable afraid for his safety and that of his partner and likely in a state of near panic as I am sure I would be . Therefore, even though he was able , as the psychiatric report concludes , to distinguish right from wrong,  and not suffering from any form of clinical mental health condition, it is hard to see if he or anyone could reasonably be expected to behave completely rationally and to the letter of the law with regard to discharging a firearm which he was licensed to actually own.

In previous high profile cases successful prosecutions of a handful of  notorius murderers  have been assisted by the clinic which was directed to examine Oscar Pistorius when in the main, they were being asked to find whether the acused was able to distinguish between right or wrong at the moment they committed their killings  but you would expect too that there will be a mass of other data their experts have collected which will provide much more detailed assessment of the athlete’s personality , general past and present behaviours  and likely mindset that fateful night. While it is clear the onous is on the judge to read the entire report and all its conclusions some time in the future, you might also expect that much of that detail will be of relevance to the defence and likely to be revisited again before the trial reaches its climax.

FOOTNOTE – selective media coverage on social media

Although I’ve read BBC’s Andrew Harding’s tweets and summary reports on the BBC News website I have followed the more detailed,  prolific  and yet  objective far more contemporaneous tweeting of Barry Bateman,  senior reporter for RSA’s Eyewitness News throughout the trial.  Of course both Mr Bateman and Mr Harding are tweeting and  not only present at the trial both also are required to write reports,  in news prose, summarising the day’s proceedings, drawing conclusions for their employers and yet for me, it is the simultaneous on the spot, minute by minute, reliable tweeting of Barry Bateman which I find most informative and it seems to me it is Harding’s role to act more as a typical BBC  correspondent to build reports based on his judgement of what he thinks  the key points.  Thus , for me , he’s not so not so strong on so much of the detail needed to help inform opinion.

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