Senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu, who doubles as a victims’ rights advocate, has stated that jurors should be barred from sitting on complex murder cases in which a defendant pleads insanity. The senator also feels that the government should be concerned about a sharp rise in the number of not-criminally-responsible verdicts in Canadian courts.
Senator Boisvenu made the comments after the latest verdict came down in the trial of former Quebec doctor Guy Turcotte, who admitted to fatally stabbing and mutilating his two children. Turcotte said he suffered from anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts amid a crumbling marriage. The ex-cardiologist could be freed later this summer if the Criminal Review Board decides he’s not a danger to himself or society.
Federal justice department statistics show a startling increase in NCR verdicts of almost 50% in the past 20 years — a spike largely attributable to Quebec courts. “These are disturbing statistics,” said Boisvenu, who plans to raise the issue with Justice Minister Rob Nicholson.
“When someone admits to having committed a crime, there is a responsibility that comes with it.” Boisvenu said jurors in the Turcotte case were barraged with conflicting testimony from psychiatrists, which made their job extremely difficult. “Some countries have chosen to have psychiatric (evidence) provided by three experts who are independent of the Crown or the defence,” he said.
Statistics show that nearly half of all not-criminally-responsible verdicts between 1992 and 2004 came from Quebec courts even though the province has less than a quarter of the Canadian population.
Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, had 37% of such verdicts in the same time period, a finding that irks Boisvenu. He says Quebec courts are soft on defendants who plead mental distress.
“The gap between Quebec and other Canadian provinces should concern us,” he said. “It is a symptom of a society that trivializes the crime, thinks that punishment is wrong.”
While Senator Boisvenu statements do raise some interesting points that may have some merit of concerns, the statistics cited seem to imply that jurors are an underlying factor of the increase of “Not Criminally Responsible” verdicts and that is simply not the case.
Most of the cases of NCR in Canada are tried before judges only. A much more prevalent and disturbing trend is of Crown prosecutors failing to aggressively dispute defense assertions of mental impairment. In many of the cases noted on Tim’s Law, the judge was presented with an agreed set of facts by both the crown and defense, where the only witnesses were the psychiatrist who made assessments based on meeting the accused a few times. The judge is bound by judicial precedence to make a determination of guilt based only on the evidence presented so the verdict is inevitably NCR.
Senator Boisvenu joins the small but growing list of political leaders who are expressing an interest in raising the topic of NCR verdicts is most welcome and indeed needed. But there are many factors that need addressed that go way beyond simplistic solutions. Reviewing the handling of many of the cases that have resulted in NCR verdicts would be a good start. Offering solutions to funding issues that likely plague many of the smaller offices of crown prosecutors may be another. Certainly working to improve mental health treatment in Canada that may have alleviated some of the crimes in the first place is another.
Simple solutions will not solve the disturbing trend of increased NCR verdicts in Canada. Juries not being able to understand complex and conflicting testimony at a murder trial may cause concern but implying that it is responsible for the increase in NCR verdicts is stupid. And in a highly educated society like Canada… the public may indeed be gullible and trusting but we are not stupid.