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July 24, 2014

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Experts conclude mental disorder not factor in Pistorius shooting

PRETORIA, South Africa — Oscar Pistorius was not suffering from a mental illness when he killed girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp and was able to understand the wrongfulness of what he had done, according to reports submitted Monday at his murder trial.

The conclusions by a panel of mental health experts, read out by chief prosecutor Gerrie Nel, appeared to remove the possibility that the Olympic athlete could be declared not guilty because of a mental disorder, which would have led to his referral to a state psychiatric institute for care. The court-ordered evaluation was conducted in the past month after a psychiatrist testified that Pistorius had an anxiety disorder that could have contributed to the fatal shooting in his home in the early hours of Feb. 14, 2013.

Nel announced the conclusions when the trial resumed after a break during which a panel of a psychologist and three psychiatrists assessed the double-amputee runner at a state psychiatric hospital in a process that was more exhaustive than that conducted by Dr. Merryll Vorster, a psychiatrist who testified for the defense. Pistorius said he feels vulnerable because of his disability and long-held worry about crime, Vorster had noted.

However, Nel only quoted briefly from the conclusions, and the entire reports were not publicly released, raising questions about what other findings they contained. Nel had requested an independent inquiry into Pistorius' state of mind, suggesting that the defense might argue Pistorius was not guilty because of mental illness.

Pistorius has testified that he fired through a closed toilet door, killing Steenkamp, after mistakenly thinking there was a dangerous intruder in the toilet. The prosecution has alleged that Pistorius, 27, killed 29-year-old Steenkamp after a Valentine's Day argument.

Pistorius faces 25 years to life in prison if found guilty of premeditated murder, and could also face years in prison if convicted of murder without premeditation or negligent killing. He is free on bail.

Later Monday, defense lawyer Barry Roux called surgeon Gerald Versfeld, who amputated Pistorius' lower legs when he was 11 months old, to testify about the runner's disability and the difficulty and pain he endured while walking or standing on his stumps without support. Pistorius was born without fibulas, the slender bones that run from below the knee to the ankle.

At Roux's invitation, Judge Masipa and her two legal assistants left the dais to closely inspect the stumps of Pistorius as he sat on a bench.

The athlete was on his stumps when he killed Steenkamp, and his defense team has argued that he was more likely to try to confront a perceived danger rather than flee because of his limited ability to move without prostheses. Versfeld noted that Pistorius' disability made him "vulnerable in a dangerous situation."

During cross examination, Nel questioned Versfeld's objectivity and raised the possibility that Pistorius could have run away from a perceived intruder on the night of the shooting. He also said Pistorius rushed back to his bedroom after the shooting and made other movements that indicated he was not as hampered as Versfeld was suggesting.

Roux, the chief defense lawyer, also called acoustics expert Ivan Lin to testify about the challenges of accurate hearing from a long distance.

Neighbors have said in court that they heard a woman screaming on the night that Pistorius shot Steenkamp, which could bolster the prosecution's argument that the couple was arguing before Pistorius opened fire. The defense, however, has suggested they were actually hearing the high-pitched screams of a distraught Pistorius after realizing he had shot Steenkamp through the toilet door.

At times during the trial, Pistorius has sobbed and retched violently in apparent distress, forcing Judge Thokozile Masipa to call adjournments. On Monday, Pistorius was calm and took notes during testimony.

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