PRETORIA, South Africa — Oscar Pistorius is a “broken” man whose mental state has deteriorated over the last two years and he should be hospitalized and not jailed, a clinical psychologist testified for his defence Monday on the opening day of the former track star’s sentencing hearing for murdering girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.
Prosecutors immediately challenged that opinion of Pistorius in their cross-examination, charging that the double-amputee Olympic athlete confronted a police witness at the courthouse on an earlier occasion.
Pistorius is currently under house arrest after serving one year of a five-year sentence after being found guilty in 2014 of manslaughter for killing Steenkamp in 2103. But the manslaughter conviction was overturned last year by South Africa’s Supreme Court which convicted Pistorius of the more serious charge of murder, which carries longer jail sentences.
Pistorius’ lawyers are arguing for some leniency from a judge when she decides his sentence. South Africa has a minimum sentence of 15 years in prison for murder, although a judge can reduce that in some circumstances. The sentencing hearing is scheduled to run through Friday this week.
Judge Thokozile Masipa, who initially acquitted Pistorius of murder at his trial, will decide his new sentence.
Called by Pistorius’ defence lawyers, clinical psychologist Prof. Jonathan Scholtz said Pistorius was “quite ill” and struggled with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Scholtz evaluated Pistorius in 2014, during his murder trial, and again in May this year.
“Mr. Pistorius’ condition has worsened since 2014,” Scholtz testified. He said Pistorius was now “despondent and lethargic, disinvested, and leaves his future in the hands of God.”
The clinical psychologist said he did not think Pistorius would be able to testify at the sentencing hearings because of his psychological problems.
Chief prosecutor Gerrie Nel pounced on that at the start of his cross-examination of Scholtz, pointing out that Pistorius had recently given a TV interview, and yet claimed to be unable to testify in court.
Prosecutors had depicted Pistorius, one of the world’s most celebrated athletes at his height, as an arrogant figure with a sense of entitlement and a love of guns. On Monday, Nel subjected Scholtz to sharp questioning, getting him to acknowledge that someone suffering from the same stress disorder as Pistorius could become irritated and agitated.
Nel referred to an incident involving Pistorius and a police witness, apparently trying to show that Pistorius was not a changed, remorseful man and could still be a potential danger to others.
Nel quoted Pistorius as saying to the police officer: “Please give us space and privacy. You didn’t do your job in any case.”
The prosecutor said the defence team apologized for the spat; Pistorius’ defence lawyer did not immediately comment on the allegation.
Dressed in a dark suit, Pistorius sat calmly on a bench during the testimony, mostly with his head down. During an adjournment before Nel began his cross-examination of Scholtz, Pistorius spoke briefly to defence lawyer Barry Roux and made a call on a cellphone.
The gallery was packed with relatives, journalists and other onlookers. Police officers lined the wood-paneled walls of the courtroom.
Barry and June Steenkamp, the parents of the model Pistorius killed by shooting multiple times through a toilet door in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine’s Day 2013, were also present in court.
In his testimony, the psychologist had described Pistorius as despondent and forgetful, and said further imprisonment for the convicted murderer would not be “psychologically or socially constructive.”
Instead, Scholtz recommended that Pistorius be treated in a hospital, and then use his skills and past experience in charity to give back to society by helping disadvantaged and disabled people, particularly youths. He noted that Pistorius had sold his firearms, became jumpy even at the sound of gunfire on television, and was unlikely to resort to violence again.
He also said Pistorius was subjected to several “traumatic and humiliating experiences” during the year he spent in prison, including being forced to shower while sitting on the concrete floor because of his disability. Pistorius spent 18 hours a day in solitary confinement while in prison, Scholtz said, and was treated “like an animal in a cage.”
Prosecutor Nel challenged Scholtz on some of those claims surrounding Pistorius’ imprisonment. For example, Scholtz said Pistorius told him that he had heard an inmate being raped by another, and then seen the body of the alleged victim after he had hanged himself. Nel disputed the assertion.
Nel also said Pistorius was not confined to his cell for 18 hours a day, but rather was allowed to walk around a wing of the prison he shared with only one other inmate.
“He complained about everything,” Nel said of Pistorius’ time in prison.
Imray reported from Somerset West, South Africa.