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Prosecutor wants Oscar Pistorius under mental observation

May 12, 2014, 11:02 AM EST

Oscar Pistorius Reuters

The lead prosecutor said he is applying to have Oscar Pistorius held for mental observation after a forensic psychiatrist testified the runner had an anxiety disorder at his murder trial Monday.

Pistorius has generalized anxiety disorder and is on depression treatment, said psychiatrist Dr. Merryll Vorster, who visited the runner twice this month. Vorster said the condition may have affected how Pistorius reacted to the situation when he fatally shot girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day 2013, but he still was able to distinguish right from wrong.

Lead prosecutor Gerrie Nel said Vorster’s testimony justified an application to refer Pistorius for mental observation.

“I’m bringing that application based on this witness’ evidence,” Nel said. “This court will not have an option but to refer Mr. Pistorius for mental observation.”

Pistorius’ lead defense attorney, Barry Roux, argued against the application because Pistorius could still distinguish right from wrong and was not delusional.

Pistorius, the first double amputee to run in the Olympics in 2012, said he thought an intruder was locked inside his bathroom when he shot four times through a locked door, hitting and killing Steenkamp inside last year.

He faces 25 years to life in prison if convicted of premeditated murder. If not found guilty of premeditated murder, Pistorius, 27, could be convicted of culpable homicide, South Africa’s version of manslaughter for negligent killing.

On Monday, the trial’s 30th day, Vorster said Pistorius’ anxiety and stress developed over time, from when his legs were amputated below the knee at 11 months old to his parents’ divorce at age 6, his mother’s death at age 15, breaking ties with his father at 21 and the increasing demands of being a famous professional athlete.

Vorster said Pistorius was raised to believe his external environment was threatening and became hypervigilant. His mother slept with a firearm under her pillow.

“As one is increasingly anxious, one feels more and more insecure about one’s personal safety, even though factually one’s safety may not be threatened,” Vorster said. “You perceive your surroundings as being threatening when maybe they aren’t.

“He was aware that he was a public figure, and believed that this made him at an increased risk of being attacked or burgled.”

Pistorius felt isolated and alone and tried to combat those feelings by inviting friends to sleep over, but he was still distrustful and guarded, the psychiatrist said.

Pistorius’ anxiety disorder and physical vulnerability go hand in hand, possibly affecting how he reacted when he fatally shot Steenkamp thinking she was an intruder, Vorster said.

“He would have been more likely to fight as his capacity to flight was compromised,” by not having his legs, she said. “I’m not saying this constitutes a mental illness.”

She said Pistorius’ anxiety disorder is a psychiatric diagnosis rather than a mental disorder but said there was “no harm” in Nel’s suggestion Pistorius be referred for mental observation.

The trial is scheduled to resume at 3:30 a.m. ET on Tuesday.

Here’s NBC News’ full coverage of the trial.

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