Did “roid rage” — a state of heightened anger and aggression linked in popular culture to anabolic steroid use — play a part in the Valentine's Day killing of the girlfriend of Olympic track star Oscar Pistorius?
If so, could it help in his legal defense?
According to media reports, police found anabolic steroids and other PEDs while searching the Pretoria, South Africa, home of Mr. Pistorius, 26, charged with premeditated murder in the shooting death of 29-year-old model and law school graduate Reeva Steenkamp.
Mr. Pistorius, one of the world’s best-known athletes, appeared in a packed Pretoria courtroom Tuesday and denied that he intended to harm Steenkamp when he reportedly fired four bullets, three of which struck her, through a closed bathroom door at his home. He said he heard a noise from the bathroom in the middle of the night and opened fire out of fear.
Prosecutors contend that the killing was intentional.
South Africa’s City Press reported that police are testing Mr. Pistorius‘ blood for drugs and steroids to investigate a theory that the sprinter, a double amputee nicknamed “Blade Runner” for his use of carbon-fiber racing prosthetics, was in the throes of “roid rage.”
The United Kingdom’s Daily Mirror reported that “boxes and boxes” of unopened performance-enhancing drugs were found in a drawer in Mr. Pistorius‘ home and that he told police he was storing the drugs for a friend.
As a legal defense, “roid rage” is no Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card.
“As a general rule, ‘roid rage’ has been a terribly ineffective defense when it has been raised,” said Rick Collins, a New York-based defense lawyer who specializes in PED cases. “The idea that steroid use alone is going to be accepted as the sole and exclusive cause of violent acts is unlikely to be accepted by a jury.”
The notion of drug-induced “roid rages” gained traction in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, when a series of high-profile crimes involving bodybuilders attracted media attention and a handful of researchers posited a causal relationship between steroid use and violent behavior.
In 1994, Ben Affleck starred in the melodramatic cable film “A Body to Die For: The Aaron Henry Story,” in which a steroid-using high school football player erupts in anger and punches his girlfriend in the face after she discovers his drug stash.
More recently, “roid rage” was cited as a possible factor when professional wrestler Chris Benoit killed his wife and son before committing suicide in 2007 and again last year when U.S. ArmySgt. Robert Bales was accused of slaughtering 16 Afghan civilians.
However, scientific evidence for the phenomenon is inconclusive.
Professionals agree that hormone levels can affect mood and behavior, including aggression. Yet while use of performance-enhancing drugs has been linked to a variety of physical side effects including acne, hair loss and liver damage, researchers have not found a definitive link — let alone a causal relationship — between drug use and increased anger or violence in the majority of steroid users.
In 2004, scientists at the University of California at Los Angeles conducted a double-blind study in which a group of men ages 19 to 40 were given a 10-week course of testosterone injections, increasing the amount of the hormone in their bodies to six to eight times its natural level.
The men — and their spouses — also were subjected to a series of psychological tests and interviews.
The study’s authors concluded that the extra testosterone, when “administered to normal men in a controlled setting,” did not increase angry behavior.
By contrast, a 2008 study based on data from a nationwide, long-term study of adolescent health found that young adult men who self-reported use of anabolic steroids also reported greater involvement in violent behaviors.
Other research suggests that a small minority of performance-enhancing drug users — about 5 percent, according to Harvard University psychiatrist Harrison Pope, a specialist on the topic — may experience related psychiatric effects including mania, increased aggression, hypomania and depression, particularly when multiple types or extremely large doses of steroids are used.
Though researchers suspect that some individuals may be predisposed to adverse psychological reactions upon using performance-enhancing drugs, they have been unable to conclusively answer a basic question: Do steroids make people more violent and aggressive, or are violent, aggressive people more likely to use steroids?
Ryan Rodenberg, a lawyer and a sports management professor at Florida State University, said criminal defendants have used “roid rage” arguments with varying degrees of success, in part because the defense is not accepted in all jurisdictions.
In a 1988 case that received national attention, a 23-year-old competitive bodybuilder named Horace Williams was charged with murder in the brutal robbing and killing of a drifter in Florida. During Williams‘ trial, his defense attorney argued that excessive steroid use had made his client insane on the night of the murder — so much so that hours before the killing, a raging Williams tore a convenience store pay phone from its metal stand after discovering it was out of order.
Unconvinced, a jury found Williams guilty of first-degree murder.
“Whether such defense is successful often turns on the testimony of the expert witnesses hired by both sides,” Mr. Rodenberg said.
Mr. Collins — a former competitive bodybuilder and author of “Legal Muscle: Anabolics in America” — said that a “roid rage” defense could have a greater impact on sentencing than on a verdict.
In June, the attorney for a Virginia man who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of his wife argued that steroid use and coffee addiction caused his client to have “diminished capacity” at the time of the killing.
A Franklin County Circuit Court judge sentenced the man to 40 years for the murder — but with 18 years suspended.
“I’ve seen situations where the consumption of steroids has been used to mitigate some criminal behavior,” Mr. Collins said. “Not as a complete defense, but a diminished sentence.
“I’ve seen it also used in the context of a quote-unquote addiction to help steer a convicted defendant toward rehabilitation as a focus of sentence. But every case has different facts, so every case needs to be assessed individually.”
The Sun of London reported that police found “evidence of heavy drinking” at Mr. Pistorius‘ home. The sprinter reportedly once almost shot a friend in a restaurant when the gun he was holding accidentally discharged, and in November posted on Twitter that he mistook his washing machine for a burglar.
“The idea that you’re using a steroid and the next thing you know you are becoming an irrational monster is a myth,” Mr. Collins said. “There is a connection between steroids and aggression, but it’s not a direct, causal one. It’s an association, and very hard to specify why it exists.
“Human behavior is extremely complex. What we do is often a result of a combination of many factors, and simple cause-and-effect notions are very rarely founded.”
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