In the early hours of March 27, 2018, a 40-year-old woman stacked her belongings in two piles in her apartment in a supportive housing complex in Chilliwack, poured five containers of lighter fluid over them, and put fire.
I will not use his name. I will call her Patricia.
Patricia also covered the apartment’s smoke detector and sprinkler head. Then, she walked out of the room, locked the door behind her, and left the building.
Fortunately for the other residents of the building – including a blind person and a person in a wheelchair – Patricia was unable to stop the sprinkler system from working.
Chilliwack Fire Department crews attended the fire, which occurred at the village on School Street. They credited the sprinkler system for putting out intentionally started fires.
Residents were able to evacuate. No one was hurt. But between fire and water, the building suffered thousands of dollars in damage, according to testimony heard by the Supreme Court of British Columbia.
And people could have been killed.
The Crown attorney charged Patricia with arson with disregard for human life. She appeared in court and was found guilty.
“It could have been something that killed a number of people,” Crown Attorney Lisa Helps said during Patricia’s sentencing hearing on Monday.
The case was unusual because not only did Patricia not have a lawyer to defend her, but she showed signs of mental illness both in relation to her actions regarding the arson but also in the courtroom. Yet she refused a psychiatric evaluation or a pre-sentence report, which courts use to explain an offender’s background.
“You don’t trust psychiatrists? Judge Kathleen Ker asked Patricia at the end of the hearing.
“No,” she replied. “They’re no better than drug dealers.”
Here, then, is the problem: without an accurate medical diagnosis, an offender’s mental illness cannot be a mitigating factor in sentencing. But you can’t force someone to get a diagnosis even though it would probably be in their best interest.
It’s reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch-22. In the World War II satirical classic, Yossarian thinks everyone is trying to kill him. And to get out of the flying bombing missions, you have to be crazy. But to ask out, you have to be sane.
Patricia seemed so full of illusions and paranoia but she thinks she is perfectly capable. Probably the most rational thing for her to do would be to submit to a psychiatric examination, which a sane person wouldn’t need: catch-22.
In my view, this case is an example of how the levers and cogs of the criminal justice system are ill-suited to manage the complex and nuanced world of mental illness. And everyone involved knows it.
As Patricia descended one rabbit hole after another in court in response to Judge Ker’s relatively simple questions, it must have been obvious to the seasoned judge and experienced Crown attorney that Courtroom 203 was not was not the place, and that a criminal was not the tool, to properly deal with this troubled woman.
But everyone involved has no choice but to work within the confines of the law.
The Crown attorney made submissions on the sentence, asking for either three years in prison (a federal sentence) or two years less a day followed by three years probation.
If it’s the latter, the Crown has sought a so-called Rogers order, which compels a defendant to seek treatment for drug addiction and/or mental illness, but Judge Ker explained to Patricia that she would have to consent to counseling. .
Part of the delusion was evident when, as part of her own observations, Patricia presented her high school and community college transcripts which she claimed were tampered with by someone.
The hearing ended with a lamentable question, “How did this happen to me? Someone with my notes?
“I can’t answer that,” Judge Ker replied.
Mental illness and criminal justice. The two will never meet.
Do you have anything to add to this story, or anything else we should report? E-mail:
ArsonBritish Columbia Supreme CourtChilliwackCops and Courts