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Oscar Pistorius to undergo psychiatric evaluation, trial delayed

May 14, 2014, 8:04 AM EDT

Oscar Pistorius AP

Oscar Pistorius will undergo psychiatric evaluation, delaying his murder trial, Judge Thokozile Masipa ruled Wednesday.

Masipa granted an application from the prosecution that Pistorius be placed under mental observation, citing South African law after a forensic psychiatrist testifed that he had an anxiety disorder. The disorder may have played a role in his fatal shooting of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp last year and could affect the judge’s verdict.

“I’m persuaded that the requirement of a reasonable possibility has been met,” said Masipa, who did not outline a specific length for the evaluation. “A referral inevitably means more delays in finalizing this matter, but this is not about anyone’s convenience but rather about whether justice has been served.”

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 on Valentine’s Day 2013. He has not claimed he was mentally incapacitated at the time.

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

Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Merryll Vorster testified Monday that Pistorius had generalized anxiety disorder, based off two interviews with him earlier this month.

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel cited Section 78 of South Africa’s Criminal Procedure Act in applying for Pistorius to undergo psychiatric evaluation. The law states:

(1) A person who commits an act or makes an omission which constitutes an
offence and who at the time of such commission or omission suffers from a mental
illness or mental defect which makes him or her incapable-
(a) of appreciating the wrongfulness of his or her act or omission; or
(b) of acting in accordance with an appreciation of the wrongfulness of his
or her act or omission,
shall not be criminally responsible for such act or omission.

The defense argued that Pistorius’ general anxiety disorder is not a mental illness applicable in the cited law, though it’s clear from the law he could be acquitted if found not criminally responsible for shooting Steenkamp due to mental illness.

“The effect of the evidence is that a doubt has been created that the accused [Pistorius] may possibly have another defense relating to his criminal responsibility,” Masipa said. “There is also a possibility that there may be diminished criminal responsibility.”

Masipa called her ruling an “integral part of a fair trial” and said the specific order will be handed down Tuesday.

Pistorius stood with his hands clasped, wavering slightly, as Masipa spoke for 15 minutes before issuing her ruling.

Masipa said it would be preferable for Pistorius to be an outpatient as he undergoes the psychiatric evaluation.

“The aim of referral is not to punish the accused twice,” she said.

The trial that began March 3 and has taken multiple breaks is now 32 days old.

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

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