It may be scary, but we will have to trust Will Baker

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On July 30, 2008, 41-year-old Vince Li sat down on a Greyhound bus beside Tim McLean, a young man of 22. What happened during that horrifying trip has since gone down in infamy: west of Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, Li (suffering from untreated schizophrenia) became convinced that McLean was a demon Li was commanded by God to kill. Li stabbed McLean multiple times with a hunting knife before dismembering him and eating parts of his body.

Li (who has since changed his name to Will Baker), was arrested, charged, and ultimately deemed Not Criminally Responsible for McLean’s murder due to the severity of his illness at the time and his inability to understand his actions. This means that legally, Will Baker did not commit a crime, though he did spend the following 8.5 years in psychiatric treatment, with increasing levels of freedoms and privileges as his condition improved and those in charge of his care became increasingly confident that Baker was able to manage his illness and no longer posed a threat to others. Since November, Baker has been living on his own in Winnipeg, but has been subject to several conditions, including monitoring to ensure he was taking his medication.

On February 10, Baker was granted an absolute discharge by the Criminal Code Review Board. According to the Board’s decision, “the weight of evidence does not substantiate that Mr. Baker poses a significant threat to the safety of the public.” This means that the last remaining limitations on Baker’s freedom (including the monitoring of his compliance with his medication schedule) have been removed and he is now as free as any other Canadian citizen.

Unsurprisingly, Tim McLean’s family does not support the Board’s decision. This is absolutely understandable. Whether legally culpable or not, the fact remains that if not for the actions of Vince Li in 2008, Tim McLean would most likely still be with them. In the nine years that have passed since that tragic summer, who knows what McLean (who would have been turning 31 this year) could have gone on to achieve, or what further joys and positive experiences he could have brought to the lives of his family and friends? A young man’s future has been stolen, not only from him but also from those who loved him. There is really no justice to be found for them, and no solace here. We cannot expect them to forgive.

That being said, I find myself being quite dismayed by some of the online reactions I have read regarding Baker’s full release into free society. Comments by the public range from the racist (“Why can’t he go have a mental illness in his own country?” [Baker is originally from China but was a Canadian citizen at the time of McLean’s murder]), to the ignorant (“Criminals always get a free pass in this country”, forgetting that technically, Baker is not guilty of a crime and has actually spent a not-insignificant period of time living in institutions or under restrictions since he was arrested), to the just plain extreme (“This is why we need the death penalty”). Those who oppose Baker’s release cite the feelings of McLean’s family, and/or their personal disbelief that Baker will continue to take his medication without being forced (“Sick people always think they’re getting better and then they stop taking their meds,” etc.).

With respect to concerns about McLean’s family, I’m pretty sure that 95% of those vocal internet folks probably spent an average of about zero minutes thinking about Tim McLean and his family between Baker/Li’s arrest in 2008 and news of his release last week. Their comments smack, not of real concern, but of a desire to see a “bad man” be punished.

I absolutely agree that the Canadian criminal justice system needs to be more responsive to victims of violent crime (or their families, if the victim is no longer living). But I’m not sure locking a man away for being sick and throwing away the key is the kind of response that will benefit anyone. As the Globe and Mail’s Patrick White pointed out in 2009, the Canadian mental healthcare system failed Li repeatedly before his illness spiraled into a homicidal psychosis. He had, in fact, escaped a treatment facility prior to McLean’s murder, and there was no follow-up to his disappearance despite the fact that he had been admitted specifically for being considered a danger. Had Canada had a more robust system in place to treat those with severe mental illness (including those whose illnesses prevent them from perceiving the serious reality of their own medical situation), had stigma surrounding mental illness not prevented Li from seeking help earlier, had he not been allowed to fall through several cracks prior to that fateful summer day, things could have been much different for him, and for Tim McLean. If we really cared about victims and their families, we would want to do our best to prevent these kinds of crimes from happening in the first place, and that means doing the hard work of changing our systems, rather than pinning all of the blame on a severely ill individual.

As for the argument that Baker cannot be trusted to stay on his meds, I admit this does make me uneasy. I do wish that the Criminal Code with regards to “Not Criminally Responsible” individuals (even those deemed low-risk, as Baker is considered to be) allowed for some additional nuance to address these kinds of concerns. That said, to not give a technically blameless man a second chance is hypocritical when second chances are extended to so many others who actually ARE culpable for their actions (impaired drivers, for example, who put others’ lives at risk every single time they are on the road, or rapists, whose defenders claim they shouldn’t be harshly punished for “one mistake”). Baker’s own mind had turned against him, and I cannot imagine how terrifying that would have been. He believed that if he did not kill Tim McLean as “God” commanded, he would die (remember, he did not choose to kill someone). According to his doctors, as soon as Baker gained the mental capacity to understand what he had done, he was horrified and remorseful. Baker understands that he needs to take his medication to prevent another psychotic episode and is committed to never being a danger to anyone ever again. It’s likely, given this commitment and his own infamy, that Baker will be a less dangerous member of society going forward than a lot of other totally free Canadians.

Can we 100% trust that Will Baker will never have another psychotic break? No. But can we ever 100% trust that no one else will ever do anything to harm us? Of course not. We exist in a country of free citizens, who can board buses and drive on roads and be in public places and walk down streets and own things that can be dangerous and choose whether to be a good person or a shitty person. Unless we are going to curtail EVERYONE’S freedoms, there is no way to guarantee that one of our fellow citizens won’t take advantage of these liberties and hurt someone. We hope this won’t happen, and usually our trust is rewarded—incidents like the murder on the Greyhound bus are already very very rare. Hopefully, Canada will use the concerns Baker’s release has raised to improve mental health care across the country, and the kind of gruesome tragedy that befell Tim McLean will be rarer still.

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