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Unfit to stand trial


By the second quarter of the 20th century, it became more common for criminal trials in Canada to hear testimony from psychiatrists and psychologists. Temporary insanity was a legal defence based on the argument that some individuals who were not legally responsible for acts committed when they were under temporary or short-term mental impairment. In more serious cases of mental illness, where accused are unable to cooperate with a lawyer in their own legal defence, they have been ruled unfit to stand trial.

In 1956, a woman living at her summer home at Public Landing, a rural King’s County community on the lower Saint John River, was murdered by her husband, a former school principal in York County. Mr. McKinney later attempted to take his own life, by cutting his wrists and jumping into the river. His wife, who was four months pregnant, had been strangled. The suspect readily admitted the murder to a neighbour and to the RCMP, who found him to be in a state of shock. Early in the year, he had been treated at the provincial mental hospital.

In August he was put on trial for murder in Hampton, New Brunswick. The jury heard from three mental health experts that the defendant suffered from acute schizophrenia, a severe form of mental illness, and was unable to direct a lawyer in his defence. He was also suicidal and needed to be under a 24-hour watch. The defence lawyer argued that the prisoner was not fit to stand trial, a motion that the Crown Attorney did not oppose. In less than ten minutes the petit jury pronounced that the accused was not mentally fit to stand trial. He was committed to the provincial mental hospital at Lancaster, where he had been under observation.

A homicide case with psychiatric issues

In 1956 a thirty-three year old war veteran was arrested for murdering his wife of eight years. The crime took place in the couple’s Saint John flat and their three young children were present. The suspect phoned the police and confessed that he had hit his wife, with whom he had been quarrelling, with a piece of wood and then killed her with a knife.

The couple had been estranged in the past and at one point the husband had been arrested for assaulting his wife. In his confession he claimed that his spouse had left him and the children more than once, had neglected her household duties, had taunted him as a “cripple” and had possibly been involved with other men. Prior to the attack, the defence argued, the victim had thrown a plate at the accused.

There were no witnesses to the actual crime. The defence lawyers in this case were Andrew Harrigan and Edward Lahey. The Crown prosecutor argued that the death was not a ‘crime of passion’ or the result of ‘provocation,’ but deliberate murder. A grand jury returned a true bill and a murder trial began.

The defence, in its cross examination of witnesses and argument, raised the issue of provocation. It also raised for the benefit of the jury the question of the prisoner’s war record. He had joined the air force at a young age, had been commissioned as an officer and completed more than twenty bombing sorties over occupied Europe.

On his final mission his plane had been hit by enemy fire and had exploded. The accused had escaped by parachute but had injured his arm and had been beaten by German civilians. Held as a prisoner of war he was later liberated and discharged from the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1945. He spent most of 1946 recovering in a veterans’ hospital and was in receipt of a disability pension.

The expert witness at the trial was the same superintendant of the Provincial Hospital who testified in the strangulation case discussed above. This physician had twenty years’ experience in neurology and psychiatry and had served as a psychiatrist with the Canadian Army overseas during World War II. Working against a possible defence based on what is now referred to as ‘post-traumatic stress’ were the facts that the accused was known in the community and at work as a calm person and that the war had ended almost a dozen years earlier.

The jury returned a verdict of manslaughter but did not recommend leniency in terms of sentencing. The lack of witnesses and of corroborating testimony matching the accused’s story of mental anguish lessened the jury’s sympathy. The judge sentenced the prisoner to ten years in Dorchester penitentiary,