In 2008, the small country town of Merritt, British Columbia was rocked when news broke that Allan Schoenborn had stabbed his estranged wife and killed their two children while they slept. He had suffered a psychotic break, and believed that that his children were being sexually assaulted. He killed them, in the horrific, mistaken belief that doing so would somehow save them from the humiliation of the ordeal.
In a single night, Mr. Schoenborn lost the very thing that he was trying to protect: his family.
Later, when faced with a double murder charge, Mr. Schoenborn was found not criminally responsible by reason of mental disorder. The judge determined that his psychotic episode left him incapable of appreciating the illegality or consequences of his actions.
Mr. Schoenborn, nine years later, recently received a decision from the B.C. Supreme Court about whether his triple homicide was sufficiently severe, and his prospects for recovery sufficiently dire, that he should be designated a High Risk Offender.
Mr. Schoenborn was successful in opposing the application. Or rather, his lawyers were. Mr. Schoenborn is still receiving significant intervention in his mental health condition and did not represent himself.
After the ruling was released, media interviews with the family of the victims of the homicide painted a tearful picture of devastated individuals. They denounced the decision, crying foul at the manner in which public safety was not a paramount consideration and called it shameful.
The structure of the Criminal Code makes the protection of the public one of the primary considerations in designating a person a High Risk Offender. In order to obtain this designation, a Court must be satisfied that the offender poses a substantial risk to cause harm to another person, having regard to factors like the individual’s current mental state, treatment opportunities, pattern of previous conduct, and the nature of the offence.
There is no doubt that this was a brutal, violent, and horrible act.
Without considering Mr. Schoenborn’s background, and without acknowledging the significant impact that mental health disorders can have on a person’s life, it would be easy to characterize these killings as “senseless.” But knowing that Mr. Schoenborn has struggled with psychotic episodes since age 19 allows us some insight to his actions. These were not the acts of a deranged murderer, with no regard for human life. These were the acts of a person whose judgment was so completely clouded by their mental disorder that he could not appreciate what he was doing was wrong.
Calling this decision shameful is a step backwards in the path we, as a society, are taking to try to better understand and accept mental illness.
A High Risk Offender designation has significant consequences for a person who is given the designation. And these consequences are particularly concerning for a person who was found not criminally responsible for his actions as a result of a mental disorder.
While Mr. Schoenborn is most certainly guilty of his actions, that guilt is only grounded in the fact that he did it. Legally speaking, he is not guilty. Legally, a person cannot be guilty of a crime they committed if they could not appreciate the consequences of their actions or the illegal nature of the act as a result of a mental disorder. Mr. Schoenborn is not guilty in law.
And while it may be difficult to stomach, people like Mr. Schoenborn are entitled to the same legal protection that anyone else is entitled to receive. In our system of law, it does not matter if you are charged with stealing a loaf of bread to feed your family, or murdering your children in their sleep. You are entitled to the same protections and rights under the Criminal Code and Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
But being found not criminally responsible does not end the matter.
A person with an NCRMD designation is not simply released back into society. In some ways, an NCRMD designation can be worse than a conviction. It’s essentially an indeterminate sentence. A person receives annual assessments of their mental health. It is only when their condition is deemed stable enough that they earn privileges like escorted day parole, then unescorted day parole, and ultimately release.
Many people remain in custody for an extended period, without any chance of being released.
The designation as a High Risk Offender delays this process. It makes an individual ineligible for escorted day parole, and makes the individual ineligible for annual reviews, shifting those to every three years.
As tough as it is for the survivor and her family, I have to think that coming to terms with the fact that you stabbed your children to death while they slept is a lot more difficult than anything else Mr. Schoenborn will have to face in his treatment.
By having fewer reviews, and fewer opportunities to test the efficacy of treatment in the real world, the rehabilitative goals of the NCRMD program are seriously undermined. It is only in the most appropriate, most extreme cases where an NCRMD designation should lead to a High Risk Offender designation.
Mr. Schoenborn is currently eligible for escorted day parole. This puts him in a good position to advance his treatment. Escorted day parole is like a litmus test for real world interactions. And looking at other cases, like Vince Li – the man responsible for a beheading and cannibalism on a Greyhound bus – it is clear that the system can work. Mr. Li has been discharged. He is managing his treatment. He is not cutting off heads and cannibalizing tongues. And while Mr. Schoenborn is eligible for escorted day parole, Crown lawyers, in review board proceedings this November, are now seeking to eliminate that possibility altogether.
Mr. Schoenborn lost his family.
He lost his family for reasons that he could not control, and could not be asked to control without serious intervention. He is a victim of his own actions, and a victim of the mental health disorder that plagues him. As tough as it is for the survivor and her family, I have to think that coming to terms with the fact that you stabbed your children to death while they slept is a lot more difficult than anything else Mr. Schoenborn will have to face in his treatment.
Designating Mr. Schoenborn as a High Risk Offender will delay his opportunity to show that he can manage his mental health disorder, that he can function again in society, and that he can overcome a significant obstacle in his life. These designations shuffle people who are most in need of treatment to the back of the queue.
If we are truly in a day and age where we respect mental health disorders, and where we acknowledge and appreciate that mental illness should not be stigmatized, why are we stigmatizing Mr. Schoenborn? Yes, his actions were brutal and gruesome. But the person who has to live with that most is himself. And getting him the help he needs will keep him from ever being in this position again.
Allan Schoenborn, and others who have received NCRMD designation are the victims of their own crimes. Why is it, then, that we often only treat them like criminals?