Not Criminally Responsible - Balancing Personal Rights & Public Protection

Bell's Let's Talk day was months ago, but the conversation about understanding mental illness must continue year round so our society can understand and be motivated to make the social change necessary to make a difference.

In 2008, Vince Li had recently gone AWOL from the hospital where he was an involuntary psychiatric patient. He boarded a Greyhound bus and took a seat next to Tim Mclean. In front of horrified passengers, Vince Li (now Will Baker) killed his seatmate, beheading him in the process. When Mr. Li stepped off the bus he expected to be greeted as a hero, instead he was arrested and handcuffed.

At the time, Vince Li was suffering from untreated schizophrenia, a mental illness that cause hallucinations and delusions (thoughts and beliefs not based in reality). Vince Li believed Tim McLean was a demon who was going to kill all the other passengers on the bus. As difficult as it is to understand, by killing Tim McLean, Mr. Li believed he was saving lives, not taking one.

The courts found that Mr. Li was Not Criminally Responsible (NCR) for the death of Tim McLean because he was unable to appreciate the consequences of his actions. Mr. Li was held in a locked psychiatric ward for years while he was receiving treatment, and getting more freedom, including short passes, and eventually his own apartment. He was described by his psychiatrist as an “ideal patient”. Just this week, a review board decided he no longer posed a significant threat topublic safety and he was granted an absolute discharge, meaning that he will no longer be monitored and has no restrictions on his freedom.

Tim McLean’s family, among others, were upset and disappointed by this decision. There is a widespread belief that many people who are found NCR are just “faking it” so they can escape responsibility for their actions. Just take a look in the comments section on articles about this story to see sentiments like this repeated.  

As a society, we are becoming better informed and more understanding when it comes to mental health and mental illness. The popularity and participation in campaigns such as Bell’s Let’s Talk day would be difficult to imagine 10 or 20 years ago. Despite this progress, there is still a stigma surrounding mental illness. Many people do not seek help with their mental health because they do not want to be thought of as “crazy” or to face the very real discrimination that goes along with a diagnosis of mental illness.

Living in an open and free society means that we must constantly balance rights and interests of individuals and the pubic. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees that we will not be arbitrarily imprisoned, and that we cannot be punished for acts which we might do in the future. Is there a possibility that Vince Li will become ill, or stop taking his medications and that a similar incident will happen again? Yes, of course there is, but the rates of recidivism are far less for those found NCR compared to people who have been convicted and served their sentences.

The systems we have in place to deal with NCR patients are far from perfect, but they are greatly improved compared to years gone by. It is important to remember that most of the people involved are doing their best to make the right decisions in a very difficult environment.

There is no doubt that Tim McLean’s family has been through a horrible ordeal that will stay with them forever. The thought of something like that happening to our loved ones is beyond awful. Stories like this often trigger thoughts of revenge and can make us feel like there is no justice in the world. When we are faced with acts like this that feel incomprehensible, it is easy to think we would be better off if Vince Li was kept locked up for the rest of his life. But that will not bring back Tim McLean, that will not stop things like this from happening again. Adequate funding and support for mental health programs, and ongoing conversation are steps we can take to help us avoid this kind of tragedy in the future.

 

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