It was a crime so horrific it shocked and sickened people across the country. Newspaper headlines all over Canada reported the brutal Manitoba slaying. Months later, many people were upset when it became clear the accused was going to be declared not criminally responsible instead of being handed a long prison sentence as punishment.
But it’s not last summer’s stabbing and beheading of Tim McLean on a Greyhound bus by Vince Weiguang Li that we are talking about – it’s the slaying of four-year-old Skylar Trevor Wiebe by his own mother, Donna Lynn Trueman, with a broom handle more than 17 years ago.
During a three-day hearing this week, Li is expected to be the latest person who committed a criminal offence in Canada to be found not criminally responsible for his actions.
In 1992, Trueman was the first to be sentenced under the then-new federal law. It had just replaced the former verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.
The main change had to do with who looks after the patients.
Under the old law, provincial politicians determined what happened to those found not criminally responsible for their crimes. Under the new law, a system of forensic review boards was set up in every province.
Trueman, a Winnipeg mother, choked her son with a broomstick handle before thrusting it through his head in October 1991.
She said she did it because she believed her son was possessed by the spirit of Adolf Hitler.
Five months later, a judge found Trueman not criminally responsible because of a mental disorder. Because the province’s chief psychiatrist said she wasn’t a danger to anyone, the judge released her into the care of her parents.
Overall, in Trueman’s case, the law was a success. She has continued to live her life and she has never committed another crime.
There’s no question that when Li stabbed and beheaded McLean last summer he committed a horrifying act. But is he a criminal and responsible for his actions?
Justice sources have told the Winnipeg Free Press that Crown and defence counsels will each put forward a psychiatrist who will say Li should be found not criminally responsible for McLean’s death. With no other evidence, it is expected the judge will agree.
There likely will be a great outcry from the public.
For months, McLean’s mother, Carol deDelley, has been trying to persuade politicians to amend the federal law to make it mandatory that anyone who voluntarily takes another person’s life loses their freedom for the rest of their own life.
Nicole Chammartin, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association in Manitoba, said her organization is supportive of people who are ruled not criminally responsible.
“But I have great empathy with the (victim’s) family in this case – I can’t fathom what they went through,” she said.
“I can understand why they have strong feelings, but is the model of the justice system rehabilitation or punishment?”
Psychiatrist Dr. Fred Shane, who recently moved his practice from Manitoba to B.C., said Trueman’s case is how the law is supposed to work.
“The meds worked, they reintegrated her, and she wasn’t deemed a threat,” Shane said.
“She was in the community within six months and that’s alarming if you read the paper, but the reality was she was OK.”
Shane said contrary to what many people think, being found not criminally responsible may mean a stiffer sentence than a criminal conviction.
“When a person is (found not criminally responsible) and put in an institution, it is indefinite. You could be there your whole lifetime,” he said.
Veteran criminal defence counsel Greg Brodsky said people who commit offences while suffering from a mental illness shouldn’t be punished like criminals.
“They have a mental disorder. It doesn’t mean they’re evil,” Brodsky said.
“I once (represented) someone saying they took instructions from a rabbit. You wouldn’t say they should be locked up with someone in prison.”