Not Criminally Responsible: Magnotta

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Luka Magnotta is on trial right now in Montreal for the dismemberment murder of Jun Lin, a student from China. Yes, Jun came to Canada, to see a whole other world and was brutally murdered. This case is entirely about NCR: not criminally responsible. Magnotta admitted to killing Jun and all the other acts of the crime: dismembering Jun, videoing it, uploading the video to what I guess was a torture video website(!) (the proprietor of which has been charged) and mailing pieces of Jun’s body to government offices and a school(!).

Okay, this case illustrates why the law needs changing. We now have a jury who has to decide if Magnotta is criminally responsible for these acts. Whether he is or not turns on the idiotic, incomprehensible and 19th century legal weirdism: did he know the difference between right and wrong. This concept is from Victorian psychiatry. Which was full of theology including sin. To knowingly do wrong is a sin. But to not know, like a little baby, isn’t. In these trials everyone mentally switches to modern psychology. So the whole thing is already a mess. And defense lawyers only use this strategy when there is a handy psychiatric diagnosis in the client’s past. Which the lawyer uses like it meant the Victorian concept of “lunacy”. A magic baby-like state of no moral culpability. Change the law! Turns out that Magnotta was once diagnosed with schizophrenia. We are told. Not mentioned at the time of the crime. Because, oh yeah people with actual schizophrenia are all almost (or always?) psychiatrically disabled by it. It’s not a take a couple pills, go to your job at the bank type thing. Unlike bipolar or depression or anxiety disorders which can be. Magnotta was auditioning for reality shows.

According to the book Far From The Tree people with schizophrenia spend all of their time fighting the symptoms. The hallucinations don’t tell them what to do they assail them like loud noises. Visual hallucinations can be terrifying. They experience confusion similar to Alzheimer’s. And there’s something called disordered thinking. I don’t understand what that’s like, but it might be like being on really strong LSD. In the no fun way, as you try to do practical things. And the drugs don’t erase all this. They just dampen the symptoms. But you may ask: don’t some people with schizophrenia have delusions where real people play roles Wizard of Oz-like in a little story in the schizophrenic person’s head and they go and do elaborate (murderous) things because of stuff in the story? No. Doesn’t exist. Total literary invention. When people with schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s get really confused they don’t interact with the world at all. They sit in a chair and experience their hallucinations. And disordered thinking. Which aren’t little stories or delusions. Too muddled. Also contrary to tv shows (big eye roll) people with schizophrenia are not the ones who commit gruesome crimes in our society. Serial killers do not have schizophrenia. Rampage killers do not have schizophrenia. Write that down and put it on the fridge. ZERO ambiguity about this in psychiatry and in the murder statistics. Schizophrenia is not the Victorian evil “lunatic” stereotype. It’s a disease. Like Alzheimer’s.

Magnotta engaged in complex planning, (including mailing packages of bloody corpse pieces), videoed and posted the video and fled. To Europe, ie passport use. All serial killer things. Especially a torture killing! And the bragging via videoing and posting. Oh, plus befriending and luring Jun. Who I think he found at the convenience store where Jun worked, like a serial killer: killing a handy stranger. This shows abilities will beyond what a psychiatrically disabled person has.

Now, people with schizophrenia do have lucid periods. Even months long. And statistics I read in the 80s said one third spontaneously recover (which suggests that they maybe were misdiagnosed. Teenage/young adult depression idiotically misdiagnosed as schizophrenia. Schizophrenia has a looooong history of slovenly misdiagnosis.) So 1) even if Magnotta was diagnosed, especially as a teen, he could have “spontaneously recovered”. 2) was he like treated for it? My mother (who was a horrible person) ran a sort of drop-in center for ex-psychiatric patients. Most had schizophrenia. They were long-term disabled. Lucid on medication (or in remission?) And super boring. Nothing will cure you of medieval BS attitudes about mental illness like being in a room full of people with schizophrenia playing euchre. (I hate euchre.) These folks couldn’t hold jobs, survived on crappy Government disability (as do I, with a different disability) and many lived in supportive housing built and run by the Canadian Mental Health Association. Magnotta did none of these things. He didn’t need any of that kind of help. So if Magnotta does somehow “have” schizophrenia but it somehow doesn’t affect him what does that mean for the law? Both in this case. And for the question of what kind of law should we have?

Well are there different kinds of schizophrenia? Yes there’s uncontrolled, the overwhelmed by hallucinations sitting in a chair kind. Alzheimer’s-like, and the person can’t look after themselves. And there’s controlled. We have been “taught” by TV shows that if “on meds” (what are we, all Nurse Jackie now?) People with schizophrenia are “fine”. Meaning no different from a well person. Total BS. The medications just dampen the symptoms, the hallucinations, the fear, the disordered thinking. They help the person work really hard to pay attention to what’s happening outside their head. Versus being overwhelmed by them.

So we’ve got controlled, uncontrolled and sometimes it goes into remission. Or let’s say a person had it in their teens and then all the confusion, hallucinations, disordered thinking stopped. For five years. Then they do a murder. Does former schizophrenia effectively give them immunity on the murder now? It shouldn’t. Same if they have schizophrenia symptoms but controlled by medication. They still have to try to stay focused on the world around them and they use that hard-fought focus to kill somebody. Should they get NCR (and sent to a mental hospital with possible release in mere months) because they have schizophrenia? No. And here’s why. First change the scenario to: because had OCD. Not obvious yet? Change to: because had major depression. (And not a school shooting with the shooter killing themself.) Still not clear? Change to: because had arthritis.

We don’t accept arthritis as a defense in murder because it has nothing to do with how the killer came to kill. Neither would OCD or major depression. Because they don’t make you do something. OCD famously makes people do stuff, but it’s picyune stuff not a cunning criminal plan. It makes you do snippets of every day life stuff like washing (it’s not being a neat freak. More like Tourette’s. Doing normal thing over and over like a skipping record. OCD is neurological NOT psychiatric.) Or a movement thing like flipping a light switch 100 times. In which case that ‘ritual’ is really Tourette’s. So even OCD can’t make you invent a complex plan and make you carry it out! And it and sleepwalking are the only medical conditions known to make you do something against your will. So schizophrenia can’t make someone kill. And that should be the criterion. Not the Victorian/right from wrong crap. That’s from an era when masturbation was thought to be both a form of insanity and a sin. Enough with the Victorians!

Unless a person’s medical condition makes them kill it should not mitigate their responsibility one bit.

(Any) illness should however influence how/where they’re incarcerated. But that’s it.

So should NCR for murder be turfed out? Probably. But if it is used it should only be considered for someone who is clearly psychiatrically disabled. Someone who is so symptomatic that they cannot hold a job, have occasional periods when they can’t understand their bills. Stuff like that. And even then if they kill somebody NCR should only apply if the schizophrenia made them do it. Which I wouldn’t, because it can’t. NCR could still exist and be more appropriately used in a case of someone with Alzheimer’s or Alzheimer’s-like schizophrenia hitting someone because the person with Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia was frightened. The disease did cause them to do the criminal thing. By making them extra frightened and making them respond in an extreme way.

But if we only even consider NCR in murder for schizophrenic people who are psychiatrically disabled, first off they don’t kill people! So won’t come up. Secondly if not considered, meaning not allowed by the courts, except for psychiatrically disabled people we keep sado-serial killer types like Magnotta from using it. You can’t do serial killer stuff, including luring and then fleeing, and also be psychiatrically disabled. You can play euchre, not pull off the crime of the century. And any ex-schizophrenic person or one with controlled schizophrenia who might kill someone in a “regular” murder: for revenge, to inherit money, in domestic abuse and seek to use the schizophrenia to escape punishment would also be barred from the NCR defence. Mind you, controlled schizophrenic criminals, I’ve never heard of. On the other hand if someone is a wife beater or a sociopath who would kill to get the family business that doesn’t mean they couldn’t get schizophrenia. It’s a brain disease. The schizophrenia doesn’t then retroactively become responsible for them being a bad person. Someone who is already a violent person could get it. Just as the crack mayor got cancer.

Last point: the idea mentally ill people should not be punished the same as well people comes from the late 19th century. And applied to, wait for it: the death penalty! It wasn’t let them go (in six months). They still got life in prison! And: the objective was to not hang someone who was raving. That was their criterion for “lunacy”, “out of touch with reality”. (How someone like that 100% of the time could dispose of the body and then sneak away is a good question.) And because back then mental illness was as much theological as medical it was held the “lunatic” did not have intact moral judgment. So “right from wrong” is sort of a super indirect Victorian shorthand for raving. We don’t have raving as an important concept in psychiatry anymore. But a thing we do have that is close to it is: psychiatrically disabled. But the law doesn’t use that. We have all of these fuzzy concepts instead. And 12 citizens have to dig through this crap while everyone in the court system pretends at them that it makes sense.

We need reform.

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