Saturday, June 5, 2010
We must defend Vincent Li`s human rights.
EDMONTON - On July 30, 2008, Vincent Li committed one of the most horrifying, high-profile murders in Canadian history.
The Edmonton man was travelling on a Greyhound bus near Portage la Prairie when he pulled a knife and attacked one of his fellow passengers, Tim McLean, 22. He stabbed McLean up to 40 times, while 36 terrified passengers watched. The bus driver was able to get the other passengers off the bus.
They could only watch in horror as Li decapitated his victim and waved the head about. The crime shocked the nation, especially since the attack on McLean was random.
But Li was a very sick man, an untreated schizophrenic, in the grip of deep psychosis. In the alternate reality which Li inhabited, McLean was a demon, and Li was under orders, direct from God, to kill him.
Psychiatrists for both the Crown and the defence agreed that Li was not criminally responsible for his dreadful crime -- that he was too delusional to have formed the necessary criminal intent to kill. Instead of being sent to a prison, he was sent to a high-security unit of the Selkirk Mental Health Centre, north of Winnipeg. He's being held indefinitely, his file reviewed every year.
When Li's file came up for review this month, the Manitoba Criminal Code Review Board faced a difficult decision. Li's doctors testified their patient had made some progress and recommended he be allowed to leave the confines of the hospital twice each day, for 15 minutes at a time. At all times, he'd be under the watch of both a peace officer and a psychiatric nurse, who'd both be in radio contact with hospital security. The review board, with all the medical evidence in front of it, agreed to the recommendation -- with the proviso that Li only be allowed out on days when he was calm and stable.
The public outrage was loud and instantaneous. And within hours, Manitoba's Attorney General, Andrew Swan, stepped in and suspended the board order.
"In our view, this order is contrary to the interests of public safety and seriously undermines confidence in the Canadian system of justice," Swan told reporters, insisting Li will not be allowed outside until the hospital improves its security.
I won't minimize the horror of Li's act or the pain of McLean's family. But let's consider what Li's doctors asked for. They didn't want permission to take Li to the mall or the supermarket. They were recommending carefully escorted 15-minute walks on hospital grounds.
Imagine life if you could never go outside, never see the sky or touch the grass. Imagine if you had to spend every waking and sleeping moment locked inside a noisy psychiatric ward, breathing dank hospital smells, looking at bleak hospital walls. Such cruel and unusual punishment would drive a sane man mad.
Li isn't a prisoner. He's a patient. And medically speaking, his doctors believe it would be good for his mental and physical health to take a 15-minute walk outside, under strict guard, twice a day. If we want to lessen the danger Li poses to the public, if we want him to get better, maybe their advice is worth heeding.
Even if you don't care about Li's human rights or medical prognosis, you ought to care about the integrity of the judicial system.
A Criminal Code board is an independent, quasi-judicial body. It operates under the provisions of the federal Criminal Code. Its rulings have the same force and effect as a court order. If the attorney general doesn't like an order, the Crown can certainly appeal it. But a politician can't rewrite or suspend a board order, any more than he can rewrite or delay a court order.
The reason the boards were established was to depoliticize the process, to ensure those found not criminally responsible or unfit to stand trial would have their files reviewed fairly. The more notorious the crime, the greater the need for impartiality.
Winnipeg lawyer John Stefaniuk chairs the Manitoba Criminal Code Review Board. He says the board received no communication from Swan's office.
"There's nothing in the Criminal Code that would permit the attorney general to set aside an order of the board," he says
But Swan's press secretary, Joelle Saltel-Allard, says the minister acted within his authority because he didn't overrule anything.
"This is not overruling a decision," she says. "The decision will be implemented, but not until additional security measures have been put in place to ensure public safety."
What will those measures be? Who will decide when it's safe enough to let Li go outside? Will the minister demand a security fence around the hospital grounds, which would have a huge impact on many other patients?
"Those decisions haven't been made and all options are on the table," Saltel-Allard says.
But does the minister even have the right to compel a delay?
"The attorney general doesn't have the statutory jurisdiction to interfere with or delay the order," says Sanjeev Anand, a professor of criminal law at the University of Alberta. "If he wants to build a fence, sure, he can do that. But he'd better get it up right away."
Of course, we need to protect people from Li and protect him from himself. But fear and loathing shouldn't trump common sense, basic humanity or judicial independence. Politicians can't run roughshod over legal rulings th
ey don't like because of a public backlash or single out a patient for arbitrary treatment because his act made the goriest headlines.
Defending the rights of a killer like Vincent Li isn't easy. But when we don't defend his right, our rights are all at risk.
First of all, Vincent Li is not a killer. He is not legally a criminal as he was declared not criminally responsible for the murder, due to his mental illness. His actions were completely out of his control and unintentional and involuntary. He did not make a conscious choice to kill McLean. We need to move past the horrific details of the murder and now focus on Li`s treatment of his mental disorder. It would be beneficial to Li`s rehabilitation and treatment that he be allowed supervised walks outside for sunshine and fresh air. That is the humane way to treat the mentally ill. Confinement can cause one`s mental condition to worsen, and can lead to severe depression. Li is not a criminal, but a patient and he should not be treated worse than a prisoner.
This was a well written article by the Edmonton Journal. :)