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Respecting an insanity defense

“Criminally responsible for an act committed or an omission made while suffering from a mental dis-order that rendered the person incapable of appreciating the nature and quality of the act or omission or of knowing that it was wrong.”

That’s an exact quote from section 16(1) of the Criminal Code. Now a recent quote from CBCNews.ca: “Vince Li has been found not criminally responsible for the unprovoked killing and beheading of fellow passenger Timothy McLean on a Grey-hound bus last summer…During the five-hour standoff, he walked around the bus carrying the severed head in one hand, the knife in the other. At one point, he threw McLean’s head into the bus’s stairwell.”

There are a lot of factors that weigh against having compassion for Vince Li. The victim was a likable guy, and was completely innocent. The attack was cowardly and brutal. The last moments of the victim’s life would have been beyond horrific. The killer desecrated the body. The head was hacked off and tossed. Eyes were removed. “What a screwed up legal system we have!” is the reaction of some people.

For one thing, they say, there’s no way that Vince Li should have made it out of that bus alive. The bus was surrounded by heavily armed RCMP officers. Robert Dziekanski was executed by Taser for brandishing a stapler. Vince Li was brandishing a severed head within easy range of RCMP bullets. It’s not like there was any question that he did the deed. He was the only one on the bus with the body, and he was eating it.

Then, Mr. Li faced the strong arm of our criminal justice system. If ever there was a time to revive the death penalty, this would be it. Not only has he escaped swinging from a rope, but he will not face the cold reality of prison.

In fact, you or I may very well find ourselves sharing a seat with this monster on our next Greyhound bus trip to Vancouver. There’s nothing like a beheading to create controversy.

In fact, if I dare risk whatever I might have of a reputation, I could not be much prouder of the RCMP and our justice system for the manner in which Mr. Li’s case has been handled.

I have a great deal of sympathy, and empathy for the victim’s friends and family. This isn’t about them, though. This is about how our society handles an extremely emotionally laden situation.

In cave man days, emotions probably ruled the day. In a civilized society, it is the rule of law, law that has evolved to ensure that justice is done. Any thoughtful human being will agree that justice is not served by summary executions and the ultimate penalty being paid by a person who had no idea he was doing something wrong.

Are you worried about Vince Li decapitating another victim? Will he be released into society as soon as he can string together a complete sentence and tie his shoes? No. Mr. Li will not be released into society until the good people tasked with evaluating and treating him decide that he is no longer a threat.

Is it fair for us to keep Mr. Li locked up if he no longer presents a threat? How could you possibly answer that question in the affirmative?

The court has found him to be morally innocent. Even the prosecutor argued that Mr. Li was not criminally responsible for his actions. Do we trust that the people tasked with evaluating and treating Mr. Li will do their job right?

That’s an entirely separate matter. Let’s put our energy and resources into ensuring we have the very best people doing that job, instead of into wishing Mr. Li was hanging from a tree.

Published in Kelowna Capital News March 22, 2009

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