Welcome to my Crime and Justice blog! I am a 19 year old criminal justice student at the University of Winnipeg. I advocate for prisoners' rights, human rights, equality and criminal justice/prison system reforms.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Vincent Li debate continues...

By: Dan Lett, Winnipeg Free Press columnist

It’s really not all that surprising that there was a torrent of response from people wanting to debate last week’s column on Attorney General Andrew Swan. My inbox was filled with people offering comments, criticism and observations about Swan public condemnation of a decision by the Criminal Code Review Board to allow Vincent Li passes to walk outside on the grounds of the Selkirk Mental Health Hospital.
Li, as everyone knows, was responsible for a gruesome murder of a Winnipeg man in 2008. Suffering from profound schizophrenia and dementia, Li’s murder and mutilation of a young man shocked many Canadians. And when a court declared him Not Criminally Responsible (NCR) because of mental illness, that sparked more shock and concern. The shock and concern continue now that it has been decided he can take two short, escorted walks outside the hospital each day.
Why reveal the contents of my inbox? The emails I receive tend to be more frank, and graphic, than the comments on the web site. This is because people have the luxury saying things in a way that we would not allow in the on-line comments section. So, my inbox is a pretty wide-open forum.

It has been one of the most interesting aspects of this story has been the divisiveness of the debate. Many people are disgusted, but contrary to Swan’s initial assertions not everyone is shocked that Li was found NCR, and that he was sentenced to be treated in a hospital rather than incarcerated in a prison. Many saw compassion in the NCR provision of the Criminal Code, and understood that Li did not intend to kill his victim; he was compelled by demon voices that literally took over his mind. Not everyone was so compassionate.
Many people have asked me what I would say to the victim’s family, or whether I would volunteer my time to escort Li around the hospital grounds to ensure public safety. On the first point, I think the victim’s family knows how I feel about this issue. I’ve written many times about the Li case, including a rather long and detailed feature which revealed the painful details of the last year of Li’s life before the murder, and a pointed commentary about efforts to bring about changes in the Criminal Code to prevent murderers from being designated NCR. As you might expect, I was not supportive.
As for the former suggestion, I guess I’m up for the job but my original point was that a nurse and security guard are, IMHO, sufficient for the job. Call that a cop out.
Other reactions ranged from the vulgar to the incredibly moving.
Reader Laurie Taite, who originally wrote to me under an anonymous alias but agreed to provide a name after I suggested it was a cowardly way to go about life, was really offended by my suggestion that Swan had acted improperly. Taite thought I was – what is the word? – oh, yeah. It rhymes with ‘blowhole."
"Hey Dan, you sure you don't work for the John Howard Society? Who is responsible for Tim's death? Give us a list of all those that are NOT shocked. I want you to send a letter to Tim's mother and tell her WHY Li should enjoy the warm sun on his face and the cool grass under his feet. Types like you that write this drivel make me puke. AGAIN, as is the norm in this pantie-waisted backwater, NO ONE is held accountable, no matter how heinous the crime. oh, sorry, it wasn't a crime. Asshole."
I suggested Laurie take something for the nausea and learn to talk to adults like adults. I’m awaiting Laurie’s latest response.
Lorna Cramer did not agree with me, but took a more articulate approach:
"I read your article and this is why I disagree with your viewpoint.

"Andrew Swan is a gutsy guy. I'm glad he's around to do the job. He's doing exactly what his job description says he should be doing- protecting the public interest. His actions are not about the unfair treatment of the mentally ill; his actions are all about protecting the public and health care workers. We are not an ignorant public as you would suggest. Securing the public, including health care workers does not invalidate the mentally ill or stigmatize them, nor does it suggest that we are back in the dark ages. There is nothing in Mr. Swan's actions that refutes the Canadian Psychiatric Association's mandate that the mentally ill need better care, that mental illness should be de-stigmatized."
I must note at this point that Li’s psychiatrists, the Canadian Psychiatric Association and many, many people who are struggling with mental illness disagree with that last point.
I still feel that, respectfully, Lorna did not get one of the main points I was trying to make. She believes Swan should be governed in all respects by the "public interest." I believe she is confusing "public interest" with "public opinion." In this instance, I suggested that Swan’s job was to ensure that justice was done, and that Vincent Li be treated for his illness, not punished for something he clearly could not have prevented. That is ultimately that is in the public interest. Either way, I appreciate the fact that she got through my column without retching.
Still other readers dug deep into their own experiences to reflect on Swan’s comments. One woman related her own experiences suffering from a bi-polar condition and offered these comments:
"When I was 25 I had my first bipolar episode. I... spent two months on the mental health ward. Not one of my "friends" visited me. I had no friends, I had no job, I didn't know what happened. I lost who I was and how to identify who "I" even was.
"To make an extremely long story short, it took two more serious episodes and bouts of depression and fighting suicidal desires for me to fully accept and deal with my diagnosis. I am blessed to be loved by my family and a few precious friends. I regained my confidence. I returned to college and started a new career I enjoy. Life has never been better and I am supported by a wonderful partner.
"People with mental illness are not always sick. In fact, acceptance allows us to be extremely stable. People who are express negativity towards people with mental illness don't realize they are also hurting themselves. It deters people who are struggling with mental issues from getting help because of the stigma.
"I hope to become strong and secure enough to stand up and out more with this issue after proving stability for a longer period. Thank-you for doing this for people who have to hide in protection."
The Criminal Code draws a line between people who are probably of sick mind but who know what it is they are doing, and those who are so sick they have no ability to pick right from wrong. It is important to note that Li honestly believed he was defending himself against an evil force. This separates Li from notable sociopaths like Paul Bernardo and Clifford Oleson, who may have been mentally unwell, but were not declared NCR by a court.
Of all the people who took the time to write in, and didn’t call me names, I think Peggy Unruh Regehr said it better than I did:

"Too many people only want retribution, and not healing. But, as a society we often need healing rather than incarceration. Knowing the difference is something that many people just cannot understand. That is unfortunate. Such healing comes over a period of time and it needs the understanding of those who are working with him. That seems to be what he is receiving, and I'm grateful for that. For those who only want retribution - nothing changes over time when that is all he gets. And then we only get repeats of what has happened this time. With help he can be helped to move back into society in a way that will not be a repeat of the past. That is what we should be working towards."
The debate on this issue continues. My inbox is ready and waiting.

I agree with the last comment that too many people only want revenge and retribution on the mentally ill, and not treatment. The majority of the public is ignorant and misinformed regarding mental illnesses. Li's actions were unintentional and completely out of his control. NCR was the correct verdict. Prison would only have worsened his condition and he would have been released as more of a danger to the public. We need to think of what is in society's best interests. We should not treat the mentally ill worse than prisoners, because legally, Li is not considered a criminal. There are two elements of a crime: the actus reus (guilty act) and the mens rea (the intention). Li's actions lacked the required mental state to be considered a crime. We should not further deprive and punish those who are mentally ill. They need treatment. Li is a victim of his mental disorder. He did not choose to have schizophrenia. 

Allowing Li to go outside on supervised walks, would not pose a risk to the public, because he is medicated and in a completely different mental state than he was two years ago. Swan had no right or authority to overrule the Criminal Code review board's decision and he even said so himself in a previous article by the Free Press. Mental health facilities do not need fences. Are we returning to the dark ages, where we treat the mentally ill with no respect or dignity and subject them to harsh conditions and allow them no rights? We should not be headed in that direction. The review board is required to consider public safety in making their decision and clearly, they concluded that supervised walks would pose a minimal risk to the public. Their decision, comprised on educated and knowledgeable minds, should be trusted and upheld. The public needs to be less focused on the act that Li committed which is in the past and more focused on the future of his treatment and his well being. Swan based his order on the misinformed public opinion as opposed to the facts and the research. He was not logical or reasonable in his decision, but based his order on an emotional response. The public is too wrapped up in the details of the gruesome and horrific act committed, that they lose all reason and logic. The public needs to take the time to educate themselves about mental illnesses. The public is much too concerned about retribution and punishment. I do not agree with Swan's actions of overruling the review board's decision. He circumvented the law to appease an emotional reaction to a logical problem. There is an appeal process to the review board's decisions and Swan bypassed that and abused his position's authority. We need a justice minister who upholds the law, not breaks it to suit his political agenda. A government that changes legislation to provide for pandering, is unacceptable. You want the public to follow laws, yet the government changes/breaks them to get elected and win over the public! We separate judiciary from politics because we don't want undue influences in our CJS. When Swan did this, he ignored due process and introduced partisan politics into the justice system, further degrading the process. Swan messed up and the public is too wrapped up in the emotional side of this issue to think logically and reasonably. 

On a side note, the John Howard Society is amazing and does great work. Their programs help to lower the rate of re-offending, which is the public's interest. We should expand this approach and I am not sure why people are so against what they do. Do you want safer communities? Apparently not. 

The public needs to think reasonably and logically about the issue of Li being allowed supervised walks. Have some common sense. It is highly improbable that someone as heavily medicated as Li, is going to make a break for freedom, somehow get away from two armed guards, and commit another horrific act. That chance is basically 1 in a billion! Li is in a completely different mental state than he was two years ago. An improved mental state. His delusions and hallucinations are under control. Allowing him to have supervised walks would not pose a risk to anybody. The idea that public safety is a factor here is ridiculous. Besides, the review board who made the decision must consider the risk to public safety and clearly, they concluded that Li posed a minimal risk to the public, by allowing him supervised walks. That is a human right and he should not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. Li's doctors and review board members are educated and knowledgeable. We should trust their decision and opinions and not let public opinion take over! Let them do their jobs. I think they have a tad more experience and knowledge regarding the mentally ill than Andrew Swan does! 

"We respect the Criminal Code Review Board..." (Justice Minister Andrew Swan)

Apparently you don't. Part of their mandate is to weigh public safety along with the patients' interests. By delaying the implementation of their recommendations you (and Hugh McFadyen, who supported this) are essentially saying that you don't trust that the board gave due consideration to public safety.

Worst of all, the Criminal Code of Canada states that board decisions can only be appealed through provincial courts yet you've bypassed that process and imposed your will when you had no legal right to do so. If anyone is seriously undermining public confidence in the Canadian justice system, it's you, Mr. Swan. Pandering is bad enough but having a Justice Minister take the law into his own hands without even knowing the reasons for the board decision is appalling.

I really don't understand why people think they're so clever in challenging defenders of human rights to take criminals and the mentally ill into their homes. It's OLD and it's lame. Find some new material please.

Andrew Swan did exactly what he said it was wrong to do: interfere in a decision made by an impartial panel of experts who know much more about the risks and benefits than he does. We keep hearing from him and the Tory leader but where is DOCTOR Jon Gerrard, for crying out loud? Talk about a golden opportunity for the Liberals to slam the NDP for circumventing the law and the Tories for goading him into it.
so you're saying the feelings of many should trump the human rights of an individual? Let's lobotomize all NCR patients so we can feel safe! Seriously, I do sympathize with everyone personally affected by this. I'd be surprised if none of them ended up suffering from PTSD as a result. As a witness, how can you get those images out of your head? However, I don't believe the answer is to deny Vince Li the opportunity to enjoy some fresh air to help in his recovery simply because the media are going to publicize it and upset the victims. Is he supposed to remain locked up forever (in contravention of the law) to spare people's feelings? Where does it end? Should we start convicting people based on victim impact statements or public opinion polls? The latter option is awfully close to what actually happened in this instance and it's quite frightening.

I think there is a general lack of knowledge about mental illness, and the necessary treatments required for healing and treatment, within our society. It is clear that the majority of people would like Mr. Li to reach a place of healing, where he no longer poses a threat to the public's safety. We need to trust the experts involved to either get Mr. Li to that point, or deem him untreatable.

Sure, politicians should listen. That's not the problem. It's acting outside the bounds of the law that's the problem. You asked, "Who else is he supposed to listen to if not society?" The Criminal Code Review Board! They are the ones qualified to make those decisions. Not you, not me, not the outraged public, and not Swan. The public has no business dictating a patient's medical treatment.

"You can't blame him for listening to the only people contacting him."

Sure I can! He's supposed to function impartially, not act in response to the hysteria of the masses.

I didn't read the story about Selinger's comment about the Guimond case. I just saw the headline and rolled my eyes.

"Ultimately, if they want to change something, they can do it."

If Swan had limited himself to protesting to his federal counterpart, as well as filing an appeal, that would have been quite appropriate. Those are the only things he's empowered to do to bring about a change in the decision.

I wouldn't waste my time contacting Swan. I read an article in an Edmonton paper online and his press secretary claimed that he wasn't overturning the decision, he was ONLY delaying it. So that's going to be the party line. A law professor weighed in and said that was a bogus excuse and there's nothing in the statutes that give Swan the right to do what he did. He said if Swan wants to build a fence, that's okay but he'd better do it quickly! LOL Swan will hear from more influential people than me, namely the hospital and the federal Justice Minister, who he contacted. It won't go unchallenged, I'm sure.

"I believe what Swan did was justified in that he is respecting what the majority of people want."

Swan doesn't know what the majority wants! He's basing this on what's being said in the media and from people contacting his office. Or maybe he let the Tories sway him. Whatever, unless he took a referendum on the issue without my knowledge, he has no clue what the majority really wants. Likewise, you have no idea whether the majority wants tighter security.

The government should NEVER be able to step in. If a judge made a ruling that the government disagreed with, would you approve of the government stepping in to overrule the decision? It's the same thing here. We can't arbitrarily decide that a legal decision is wrong and overturn it. There is an appeals process and the law has the final say. Politicians have no right to interfere in the judicial process. EVER!

You're focusing on a fence and we don't even know if that's what the solution will be.

"This only affects a small group and like I said, I really don't think it's going to affect them negatively."

It certainly will affect Vince Li negatively. He's already been told of the board's decision and now they're going to tell him...what? "The government shot down the decision for now because they don't trust you not to escape and kill again"? That'll be just great for his mental well-being no matter how they word it.

What's really farcical about this is that Swan said that he'd leave it up to the hospital to determine an appropriate level of security. Since Li's own doctor is a member of that board, why would the hospital recommend anything different than what the board did??

I hope they tell Swan to stuff it and I really hope he pushes this into court and ends up with egg all over his face.

Who are we (including Swan) to say the decision was wrong? Who better to assess the safety aspect than those who have first-hand knowledge of Li's current mental status?

I understand your point of view but I can't agree because 1) Swan overstepped his authority and interfered in a legal process he had no right to, 2) it does a disservice to the mentally ill because it validates all the misinformed outrage over this, and 3) that slippery slope I mentioned before.

A democratic process has already decided that independent review boards should not be swayed by politicians for a reason. Flouting this law is spitting in the eye of democracy. This isn't "working together", "negotiation" or "compromise" because the psychiatric profession is outraged over this. This is an example of fear and ignorance denying someone their human rights. It doesn't matter if it's "just" deferred to a later date. It should never have happened at all.

There's a concept of the democratic system that seeks to prevent "tyranny of the majority". This means that even if the majority call for a certain action, if that action causes an individual or a minority group to be discriminated against, it musn't be allowed. Using the U.S. as an example, the majority have so far succeeded in many states to deny same-sex marriage. The majority should never impose their beliefs on a minority group. The line has to be drawn somewhere. If we let Swan move that line just a little, where does it end?

"Sometimes the government has to step in, or boards like these would be doing whatever they please."

Earlier in the week, Swan himself said he can't dictate to the board. "An attorney general, he said, should not demand that a judge or tribunal or independent party come to a particular decision. '(That) is simply wrong and, more than that, it strikes at the very heart of the democratic system that we enjoy in this province and this country.'" I don't see any difference between influencing a decision and overruling a decision. Either way, it's out of line.
These boards are independent for a reason: they are composed of experts who weigh the benefits and the risks in an objective manner. It is not acceptable for the government to bow to public pressure and override their decision. Not only is it arrogant for Swan to presume that he knows better than they do, he's interfered with due process. It can be a very slippery slope when politicians ignore the law and bow to a public outcry.

This wasn't a compromise because Swan didn't negotiate with anyone. He rejected the board's decision that it was safe to allow Vince Li to venture onto the grounds under the amount of security they recommended.

Today's editorial is excellent and explains it far better than I did.

"Swan: STOP PLAYING POLITICS with PEOPLES' LIVES! Follow the advice of experts who are trained BOTH in criminal issues as WELL as mental health. Otherwise, you just abuse government power to discriminate against someone who has been very seriously ill and has to reconcile somehow what they did, which will probably take them THE REST OF THEIR LIFE! :("

I couldn't agree more. Isn't it interesting how almost no one is commenting on the questionable legality of Swan's actions? Let's say the situation was reversed and the review board had refused to allow Li out for fresh air. Then Swan overruled their decision and called it inhumane. Boy, would the mob be screaming about the law and calling for Swan's resignation then!


You people can't cherry-pick the laws you think should be enforced just to suit your own feelings on the matter. You also lose all credibility when you insist Vince Li should be put to death, deported, thrown in a dark hole, sent to jail, etc. None of those options are legal and it's pretty hypocritical to be criticizing someone for a crime and then calling for illegal punishments.

The truth is, this man poses little or no threat (on medication) while walking outside for 15 minutes twice a day.

We understand that the majority of comments are from your everyday working stiffs with limited understanding of deeper issues like this one.

Most of the knuckle-draggers can't get past their own emotions regarding a psychotic episode involving brutal murder and cannibalism. The reaction is mostly fear, bolstered by anger and a sense of helplessness.

Being able to separate emotion from thoughts and choice requires an awareness that you just aren't going to see represented here, on a web-based, anonymous comment section.

The truth is, this man poses little or no threat (on medication) while walking outside for 15 minutes twice a day. There's even less of a threat while accompanied by armed guard.

Andrew Swan continues to show his inexperience, and was prematurely appointed to the Attorney General position. He will continue to show his shortcomings in that position as time goes on.

All in all, an embarrassing situation that fans the flames of fear and confusion in the community. Hence the revealing comments here, which show the majority to be unenlightened and ignorant...but still, remarkably predictable.

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