Wednesday 27 May 2009

Should the public be informed of the final disposition of the criminally insane?

The definition of insanity is as follows. It is a form of mental illness of such a severe nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, cannot conduct her/his affairs due to psychosis, or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior. Insanity is distinguished from low intelligence or mental deficiency due to age or injury. If a complaint is made to law enforcement or to medical personnel that a person is evidencing psychotic behavior, he/she may be confined to a medical facility long enough (typically 72 hours) to be examined by psychiatrists who submit written reports to the local superior/county/district/provincial court.

A hearing is then held before a judge with the person in question entitled to legal representation, to determine if she/he should be placed in an institution or special facility. The person may request a trial to determine sanity. The original hearings are often routine with the psychiatric findings accepted by the judge. In criminal cases, a plea of "not guilty by reason of insanity," will require a trial on the issue of the defendant's insanity (or sanity) at the time the crime was committed. In these cases the defendant usually claims "temporary insanity" (crazy then, but okay now). The traditional test of insanity in criminal cases is whether the accused knew "the difference between right and wrong," following the "M'Naughten Rule" from 19th Century England. Most states require more sophisticated tests based on psychiatric and/or psychological testimony evaluated by a jury of laypersons or a judge without psychiatric training. A claim by a criminal defendant of his insanity at the time of trial requires a separate hearing to determine if a defendant is sufficiently sane to understand the nature of a trial and participate in his/her own defense.

If found to be insane, the defendant will be ordered to a mental facility, and the trial held only if sanity returns. Sex offenders may be found to be sane for all purposes except the compulsive dangerous and/or anti-social behavior. They are usually sentenced to special facilities for sex offenders, supposedly with counseling available. However, there are often maximum terms related to the type of crime, so that parole and release may occur with no proof of cure of the compulsive desire to commit sex crimes.

Schizophrenia is a mental disorder characterized by faulty processes, bizarre behaviour, unrealistic fantasies and generally an inability to maintain interpersonal relationships. Often schizophrenics claim that they heard voices and are following the dictates of those voices.

A judge ruled in March, 2009 that Vince Li suffered from schizophrenia and did not understand what he was doing when he attacked a 22-year-old carnival worker on a bus near Portage la Prairie, Manitoba in July 2008. A court statement detailed how Li heard the "voice of God" telling him to kill. This man not only beheaded his victim, he also cut away part of his victim’s body. The police discovered a plastic bag containing an ear, nose and part of his victim’s mouth in the pocket of his killer. He was originally charged with second-degree murder but found not guilty by reason of insanity.

The public may never know if this man will be kept in a mental institution for the criminally insane or given a conditional release. The chairman of Manitoba's Criminal Code review board says such details about Vince Li's fate could violate his rights as a patient. The victim’s mother said that keeping Li's fate secret would be another example of his rights trumping those of her son. She said that the idea that Li deserves privacy as a patient boggles her mind.

Quite frankly, it boggles my mind also. It is beyond my comprehension as to how information as to whether or not Vince Li is to be incarcerated or released can possibly violate his rights. Generally, the names and often the pictures of dangerous sex offenders and murderers who are released from prison are published in newspapers. The reason for this is so the public can be warned of their presence in the community. I would be less afraid of being in their presence than that of a man such as Vince Li.

It seems to me that the public should know if this man is to be placed in an institution for the criminally insane. Suppose you lived in the same town this man lived in and you didn’t know if he was set free to return to your town. Would you feel ill at ease knowing that the man, who without warning or rhyme or reason, suddenly attacked an innocent stranger and butchered him, was now free to roam about in your town?

Surely, the general public will want to know that Vince Li is still deemed to be insane. If that is so, he certainly won’t be released back into the community. But if the Board has its way, we will never know. This man may convince the Board that he is cured (although that is unlikely) and be subsequently released. The public would want to know that also.

That isn’t a problem in the United States. The New Haven Registrar, a newspaper in the United States released the following information on April 29, 2009;

“David Messenger — who beat his pregnant wife to death in front of their 5-year-old son — got a break from the criminal justice system. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity for the 1998 murder at the couple’s home in the eastern Connecticut town of Chaplin. Instead, a three-judge panel in 2001 ordered him held for 20 years at a state mental hospital. Now, officials of the state’s Connecticut Valley Hospital want to release Messenger to live in Old Saybrook, although he would remain under the hospital’s supervision. The hospital may believe it is safe to free Messenger, or it may simply want to free up a hospital bed. But the suggestion that Messenger no longer poses a threat demands very close scrutiny when the state’s Psychiatric Security Review Board considers the hospital’s request in May 2009.”

Obviously, no one in authority in that state had any qualms about releasing information about a killer who was incarcerated in a mental institution and of the hospital’s plan to release him.

What is certain is that psychiatry is not an exact science and that individual psychiatrists are incapable of even agreeing if a violent, insane criminal poses a continuing threat. At the 2001 hearing on committal, one psychiatrist testified that Messenger’s delusional disorder was in remission and that there was little risk of his committing another violent act. Another psychiatrist concluded that Messenger remained a serious threat. The judges described Messenger as an intelligent, manipulative man with knowledge of psychiatric disorders — in short, the sort of person who would fool the system by seeking his early release.

Since John Hinckley was found insane in his trial for shooting President Reagan, an intense debate has arisen in legal circles relative to the insanity defense. How much must the prosecution do in order to prove criminal intent, as opposed to insane behavior, in a given felony? In federal courts, the burden has traditionally been that of the government in proving that a defendant was sane when he committed a crime. Since the controversial Hinckley verdict, federal statutes have been amended, granting prosecutors more leeway, shifting the burden to prove insanity more upon the defense.

In Canada, the insanity defense is governed by the M'Naughten Rule, under which the test for legal responsibility is restricted to the sole question of whether the defendant, at the time the offense was committed, could discern the difference between right and wrong. The opinions of expert witnesses—psychologists and/or psychiatrists will lay down the insanity issue before jurors.

This is a strange anomaly in our court system. In criminal court, expert witnesses cannot give their opinion as to the final issue of insanity; they present facts and offer analysis, but jurors interpret those statements amongst themselves. A jury of one’s peers can be plumbers, mechanics, housewives, deliverymen etc, and they have to decide which of the expert witnesses is right even though none of them have any training in psychology or psychiatry.

It is conceivable for example that the jury may conclude that the accused is insane when in fact; he is only pretending to be insane. It wouldn’t be the first time that has happened. Then a few years later, the accused convinces the psychiatrists in the mental hospital that he is sane. That wouldn’t be hard to do since he was sane all the time he was incarcerated. It certainly beats serving a life sentence in prison.

Often the juries don't buy the insanity plea. After two days of deliberations in May 2009, jurors at the trial of the man charged in the death of Quebec political aide Nancy Michaud found him guilty of first-degree murder. Francis Proulx was automatically sentenced to life in prison without parole for 25 years. Proulx admitted at his trial he shot Michaud in the head in cold blood on the night of May 15, 2008, in her home in the small farming community of Riviere-Ouelle, 150 kilometres northeast of Quebec City. Proulx testified he then took her body to an abandoned house where he had sex with it. After he was done, he said he dropped her body in the basement where it was discovered by police three days later. At his trial, the defence said Proulx, 30, would not have killed Michaud if he hadn't been taking the medication. The jury didn't buy into the defence theory that the intake of antidepressant Effexor coupled with the accused's mental health problems — Proulx is diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome and obsessive compulsive disorder — impaired his judgment. The nine women and three men of the jury sided with the Crown, who charged Proulx didn't pick Michaud's house randomly, that he knew she was alone with her children and had the intention of assaulting her and causing her death.

In September, 2008, a man who viciously knifed a fellow passenger on a Greyhound bus in Northern Ontario had previously requested psychological help before police officers bought him a bus ticket. Before the attack on the bus, he went to the police and requested psychological help and was taken to a hospital by police but was deemed not to be a threat and was released. He was later declared insane after the attack on the Greyhound bus.

In October 2008, Ontario Superior Court Justice Ian Nordheimer found Ibrahim, 28, not criminally responsible for killing a 60-year-old woman. Two psychiatric reports concluded Ibrahim suffers from schizophrenia that clouded his ability to appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions.

I find that conclusion rather suspect. While claiming innocence, he told police he was a paranoid schizophrenic who had stopped taking his medication. His 9 mm handgun was found under a tree in the yard. If he hid his handgun under a tree, then he knew that what he had done was wrong and that would make him sane. Further, if he told the police that he was innocent, then that means he knew that he had done something wrong for him to deny that he shot the woman. That too would make him sane. If he was innocent because he was a paranoid schizophrenic who had stopped taking his medication, then that too means he was sane because obviously someone told him that if he commits a crime while being a paranoid schizophrenic, he could commit a crime and then say that he was insane.

In February 2006 a judge declared a 48-year-old Iranian named Dabiri "not criminally responsible" by reason of mental illness for randomly stabbing a young woman with a five-inch blade as she stood waiting for bus in Toronto. But six months before, Dabiri had been freed from mental health custody where he was held for a similar random attack in 2003. That's when he punched a 65-year-old man in Dufferin Mall. Justice William Wolski declared the 48-year-old Iranian immigrant not criminally responsible and ordered him sent to a mental hospital where the Ontario Review Board will determine his future treatment and possible release.

Obviously, the real dangerousness with this man and others like him is the randomness of his attacks. In other words, he could suddenly, without any provocation whatsoever (such as in Vince Li’s case as well as that of Dabiri) pull out a large knife and start slashing the person nearest to him.

Surely, those who know this man personally would want to know if he is being released so that they can take steps to avoid him.

I see no justifiable reason as to why the authorities should not disclose to the public, information as to whether or not Vince Li is going to be incarcerated in a mental hospital or released back into society. To keep that information from the general public is an affront to the public’s right to safety and peace of mind.

UPDATE: The chairman of Manitoba's Criminal Code review board changed his mind. He says the Board will make public, information as to whether or not Vince Li will be incarcerated or set free but will not disclose its reasons. June 4, 2009. The Review Board publicly announced that Vince Li will be sent to the high-risk ward at the Selkirk Mental Health Centre in Manitoba.

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