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Nuances of insanity plea can get lost

How could a father kill his own children? Allan Schoenborn slashed his 10 year old daughter’s throat. She tried to fend him off, pleading with her father for forgiveness. His younger children, aged 8 and 5, were suffocated. These are details we know from Mr. Schoenborn’s own testimony during his recent trial.

It makes me feel sick simply stringing the words together. My little ones are 8, 6 and 3. I can’t imagine so much as pinching them. Some might ask why we might bother trying to get our heads around it, and simply just kill him. Others might suggest that we should make it a painful death. He shouldn’t die nice and easy. Rather, he should die slowly and painfully. Perhaps death would let him off too easy.

Some might say he should rot in a cold, barren, prison cell, forced to think about his horrific crimes until he dies. The most tragic element of this horrible loss, in my view, is the fact that he thought he was protecting them. He thought it would be better for them to die innocent, than live to be violated by sexual abuse.

There was no evidence that the children were at risk of being sexually abused. Mr. Schoenborn was suffering from a delusion. Was he really? Is that true? Is it just a story he made up to escape justice? There were two psychiatrists who gave expert psychiatric evidence at the trial. One was hired by the prosecution. The other was hired by the defence.

The defence psychiatrist’s opinion was that Mr. Schoenborn was suffering from a delusion. The prosecution psychiatrist’s opinion was inconclusive—that it was impossible to know what his state of mind was at the time. It’s no surprise that the Justice hearing the case held, on balance, that Mr. Schoenborn was suffering from a disease of the mind.

Is this a case for bringing back the death penalty? Nonsense. A penalty, by death, to punish a father’s delusional act of compassion to protect his children’s innocence? The only way I could give the nod for Mr. Schoenborn’s execution would be for the purpose of showing him the compassion that he was trying to show to his children.

How wretchedly painful it would be to come to the realization that you killed your children, mistakenly thinking you were doing the right thing. I would rather die. I couldn’t give the nod, though. I don’t have it in me. Mr. Schoenborn has, or eventually will have, the means to end his own life. I wish him the best our psychiatric world can offer to salvage the tatters of his life. If he finds the reality of his actions too difficult to live with, I wish him a painless end and an eternity of compassion. Mr. Schoenborn is an extreme case. He acted in horrific ways because he was delusional.

The criminal justice system is full of cases that are not extreme—of cases where the guilty party may not be legally insane, but is quite obviously suffering somewhere along the road between the two extremes of complete mental health, if that ideal even exists, and delusional insanity. Regretfully, our criminal justice system is completely ill-equipped to deal with the nuances of those cases. You are either sane, or insane. There is no in between.

We would have a more just criminal justice system if we could figure out what to do with the in between.

Published February 28, 2010 in the Kelowna Capital News