Review board warned that murder suspect was a risk
Published Friday, April 20, 2012 10:57AM ADT Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 9:05AM ADT
HALIFAX - A review board began granting a man accused of murdering a gay activist this week conditional leaves from a psychiatric hospital in Halifax two months ago, even though the board considered the mentally ill man a "significant risk" to public safety.
But a legal expert in the mental health field says the warning in the disposition order from the Nova Scotia Review Board didn't mean Andre Denny was considered dangerous.
Denny was charged Wednesday with second-degree murder in the beating death of 49-year-old Raymond Taavel. The accused, diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was a teenager, is undergoing a 30-day psychiatric assessment.
Outside a court appearance for his client on Wednesday, defence lawyer Pavel Boubnov questioned the decision to temporarily release Denny from the East Coast Forensic Hospital on Monday night, saying his client is prone to violence when he is drinking and off his medication.
As he was being led into court, Denny, 32, shouted at reporters: "Drunken fight."
"Self-defence," he said. "What can I say?"
During a February hearing, the seven-member review board granted conditional leave for Denny, which included a one-hour pass on Monday night that started at 7:30 p.m. Police have said they began looking for Denny when he failed to return to the hospital.
The role of the board, which included two psychiatrists and four lawyers in February, is to decide on what level of community access should be granted to patients in the East Coast Forensic Hospital.
The hospital treats offenders from an adjacent provincial jail and patients who have been found unfit to stand trial, as well as others found not criminally responsible for their actions.
Despite the safety warning, law professor Archie Kaiser of Dalhousie University in Halifax says the term "significant risk" is a specific legal term that is easily misunderstood.
The term is used when the board wants to retain control over an individual as they are integrated back into society, he said. Without the designation, the law would have required the board to set Denny free with no conditions.
"The decision of the board says he is a significant threat because otherwise they would have to wash their hands of him," said Kaiser.
"When you see that phrase, it makes you wary about this decision. (But) the use of that terminology is necessary in the circumstances in order to retain jurisdiction over the accused."
A senior health official said Denny's profile at the forensic hospital wasn't all that different from other patients there.
"The board sees all of the patients here," said Dr. Scott Theriault, clinical director of the Department of Psychiatry at Capital Health.
"And all of the patients here, having been found not criminally responsible ... all have a mental illness and some proportion have substance abuse issues, and a good proportion ... lack insight into the mental illness."
In Denny's case, he was detained at the secure hospital in January after a court ruled he was not criminally responsible on a charge of assault causing bodily harm. The verdict means the accused is incapable of appreciating the nature of their actions or knowing that they were wrong.
The order says Denny was accused of drinking vodka and beating a woman who laughed at him for suggesting "the devil is in the basement" at his home in Membertou, N.S., in June 2011.
"He admitted to striking the victim in the face with an open hand," the disposition order says.
When he was admitted to the hospital in September, it says Denny was "agitated, demanding, argumentative, intrusive, loud disorganized and paranoid." The document notes that Denny is dependent on alcohol, marijuana, opiates and others substances.
With the adjustment of his medication, however, his condition improved and he was granted supervised outings in early February.
Still, the document says Denny continued to struggle.
One doctor at the facility noted that while Denny was aware of his diagnosis he was unable to distinguish reality from his delusions and did not connect his "bizarre experiences" with his illness.
"He also has very poor insight into the effects of substance use on his mental health and on the safety of others around him while he is using drugs and alcohol," the disposition order says.
At the hearing at the hospital on Feb. 20, one of the hospital's doctors warned that he was still unstable.
"Even though he has been here for a long time, he remains unwell and psychotic," the document says. "His behaviour can be quite intimidating at times. ... As recently as a few days ago, he was really delusional. He has poor insight into the adverse effects of drugs and alcohol."
Kaiser, who has a cross appointment at Dalhousie's psychiatry department, said these observations are not surprising, considering Denny's mental illness.
"It doesn't mean ... he would have been detained with no liberty and no prospects for rehabilitation," he said. "Yes, his thoughts may be disorganized. Yes, he may have some delusional thought. But that does not necessarily mean he would be a substantial risk to public safety."
Kaiser also pointed out that the disposition order makes it clear that Denny showed no signs of aggression prior to the hearing in February, and he was free of illicit drugs when subjected to random urine testing.
As well, the assault offence that led to Denny's detention is considered a "mid-level" offence, Kaiser added.
The report itself goes on to say that at least one doctor at the hospital concluded that Denny was expected to respond to drug treatment.
The board also imposed a number of other conditions on Denny, including orders to adhere to recommendations from the community mental health team, comply with forensic community programs, abstain from using illicit drugs and alcohol, and to avoid contact with the assault victim.