Saturday, February 28, 2015

On Vince Li: A High-Wire Act


Vince Li, the schizophrenic man who beheaded and partially ate a fellow passenger on a Greyhound bus in 2008 (and if that doesn't warn you enough, my Breadbin entry is not pleasant reading)--Li has just been granted unsupervised day passes from the psychiatric institution he's been locked in since being found not criminally responsible for the attack. (This link leads you to a 16x9 documentary that is hard to watch, but VERY MUCH worth it).

The reaction is unanimous and harsh, to put it mildly--just as it was when Li was found not criminally responsible instead of guilty. It is glaringly obvious that the Canadian public does not believe in mental illness...or if it does, it makes less than zero allowances for it. "Not criminally responsible" (NCR)  is a verdict that Canadians by and large do not understand and do not accept. This is to be expected since the vast majority of Canadians do not understand and do not accept mental illness.

Such a thorny issue here. My opinion is different from the overwhelming majority's, as usual...but at the same time I have no desire whatsoever to appear heartless and insensitive, least of all to the family of Tim McLean. The words "brutal" and "senseless" don't even begin to capture the ferocity and mindlessness of the sudden attack that killed McLean. Such randomness and depravity is hard to stomach, let alone comprehend.

Such is the nature of mental illness. You'll note I did not say that Li attacked and killed McLean. That's because, according to the doctors who examined Li at trial, in a very real sense he didn't. Something called schizophrenia did. That's why Li was found NCR  instead of guilty, and why he was put in a psychiatric institution instead of a jail, and why, as it turns out, he's now getting an unsupervised day pass and freedom just seven years after McLean was murdered.

NCR is usually called "not guilty by reason of insanity" in lurid Hollywood dramas. Whatever you call it, it feels to many people like a "get out of jail free" card. It actually feels like a repudiation of the crime itself--if it's a patient and not a prisoner, then presumably there wasn't a crime committed. Ho hum, move along, no crime was committed here.  That's the heartset of Carol de Delley, mother of Tim McLean, and it's very understandable heartset to have. It is not a mindset.

You can tell people that psychiatric institutions resemble jails far more than hospitals, but since they're not jails, it's not right.  You can tell them that  sentences for NCR are indefinite and can often exceed the comparable jail term a guilty criminal would serve, and the immediate reaction to that is that the guilty criminal and the mentally ill person must simply serve a longer sentence. Life, preferably. Longer than life, if that can be arranged. God forbid you get into the statistics: 93% of NCR patients do not re-offend once released. (Source: that 16x9 documentary linked above, 5 minutes, 35 seconds). That 7% recidivism rate is considerably lower than that of Canadian prisons (28%) and holy shit lower than that in America (an astounding and terrifying 67.8%). (Jesus. You think CANADA has a revolving-door justice system? Rarely has a statistic knocked me on my ass that hard.)

These are all rational, true statements. But they don't feel true. They feel like copouts. You did the crime, you do the time...isn't that how it goes? How it should go?

People think about punishment, right, and that these people need to be punished. But they don't commit the crime out of ill intent, they commit it out of an ill mind" -- Lori Triano-Antidormi, mother of a two year old stabbed to death by a woman found not criminally responsible

Should it matter? Does that make a difference? A victim, after all, is still dead.

Well, yes, actually, I think it should matter.

It was only a month ago that we were talking, here in the Breadbin, about mental illness. Like everything else that has a hashtag attached to it, it's top of mind for a day or two...a week at the outside...and then it's gone.)
The stigma against mental illness is hard to fathom. At times it minimizes the disorder: depressives are told to "just cheer up". At other times the disorder is blown out of all proportion: every schizophrenic is supposedly a Vince Li in waiting. This is not the case...many diagnosed people, including many schizophrenics, live productive lives and do not commit crimes, much less kill people. But you don't hear about those people. The only schizophrenics you hear of are the high profile ones like Li. The public face of schizophrenia is therefore a mutilated body on a bus...and I will give you ten to one odds you have met a schizophrenic without knowing it.

Vince Li has been a model patient since his committal. He has expressed "as much remorse as you'd hope a person to have" and made a vow to himself to continue taking his medication for life. Is seven years enough time to avenge a snuffed out life? I don't think so. But...what do we do with Li? Putting him in jail won't work for two reasons: one, he can't legally serve a sentence on top of being committed and two, he would almost certainly regress in jail. He probably shouldn't stay in a psychiatric ward, if he is in fact cured. And releasing him feels wrong even to me, in my heart, even though my mind can't come up with a thoroughly rational reason to keep a man who is NOT a danger to society any more locked up.

I see two possible courses of action here that satisfy my head and my heart. Hear me out.

The first is that we release Li and people like him subject to supervision. I think that's a reasonable request for the simple reason that our safety is completely dependant on the medication these people are required to take...and schizophrenia has a nasty way of convincing its sufferer that she's normal and does not need medication at all. This means many more halfway-type houses than we currently have.

The alternative is to let Li fly free as a bird.  But we make the doctor willing to sign her or his name to Li's release papers responsible for anything that goes amiss. If Li -- or Li's schizophrenia, as the case may be -- commits a crime, than the doctor will serve minute for minute. That should at least make him confident of his assertion. Let her put her money where her mouth is.

As of right now, I don't believe this is legal. I think it should be. There are many cases of vicarious responsibility: a  bar owner can be responsible for the actions of a drunk patron, for instance. Employers can be held legally liable for the actions of their employees. This is the same principle.

People like Li are outliers, but they are different only in degree, not in kind, from anyone else with a mental illness. And it seems I just got finished saying that people with mental illnesses are still people. Provided we make every effort to keep the rest of us safe, those deemed cured after a verdict of NCR should be given the same opportunity a released prisoner is given.


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