The Queen v. Luca Magnotta-the Defence of Not Criminally Responsible by Reason of Mental Disorder

The trial of Luca Magnotta on a charge of first-degree murder, currently underway in Montreal, has once again put the defence of not criminally responsible by reason of mental disorder in the spotlight.  Some may recall that it was successful in Toronto for Richard Kachkar in the killing of a Toronto police officer but every case has different facts which may lead to very different results.

Based on the opening statement of his counsel, Magnotta does apparently have a psychiatric history (and a side-note:  normally, defence counsel doesn’t give his or her opening until after the end of the Crown’s case.  No doubt, the counsel here got the Court’s authorization to open right after the Crown in order to let the jury know what the issues were going to be right from the start).

Under s.16 of the Criminal Code of Canada, everyone is presumed not to suffer from a mental disorder rendering them incapable of criminal responsibility.  Anyone trying to show the contrary has the burden of proof on the balance of probabilities.

To meet that onus, there must be evidence that at the time of the offence, the accused suffered from a disease of the mind rendering him incapable of appreciating the nature and quality of his act or incapable of knowing the act was wrong.

“Appreciating the nature and quality of the act” means being capable of analyzing the physical consequences of the act.

“Knowing it’s wrong” means having the intellectual ability to know it’s morally wrong and, further, being able to rationally choose how to act.

While first-degree murder requires proof that the accused’s intentional act of killing was done with planning and deliberation, that evidence is not necessarily inconsistent with an inability to know that the act was wrong.  An ability to plan doesn’t determine the ability to make a rational moral decision.

What are we going to see as the trial unfolds?

The Crown’s focus will not only be on the details of Magnotta’s actions, which his counsel has admitted he did, it will be on anything Magnotta said or did which indicated the kind of insight or awareness of the difference between right and wrong.

Magnotta’s lawyer will lead evidence of his psychiatric history as well as an assessment by one or more psychiatrists of his mental state at the time he carried out some very horrendous actions.  The Crown may respond with expert evidence of their own to present an alternative.

On occasion, as occurred in Kachkar, the prosecution experts agree with those of the defence that the elements of s.16 were applicable in the specific circumstances of the offence and the offender. That’s how Kachkar was found not criminally responsible and was thereafter ordered to be hospitalized at the direction of the Ontario Review Board until such time as further reviews of his mental state would support a different disposition.

It will remain to be seen how Mr. Magnotta’s assessment will be presented in court and how his jury deals with the evidence.

Jeffrey Manishen
Jeffrey Manishen
P: 905.572.5813