On Watch

Fit to Stand Trial

Posted: Mar 19, 2013 4:46 PM ET Last Updated: Mar 19, 2013 4:46 PM ET
Three times in the past few years I have witnessed transformations that have left me both surprised and slightly troubled.

In each case, a man struggling with severe mental health issues stands accused of serious crimes.  And in each case, the men have presented two very different sides of their personalities during their court appearances.

The most recent example is Andre Denny. 

The 33-year-old Cape Breton man is accused of second degree murder in the death of a prominent Halifax gay rights activist.  Raymond Taavel was beaten to death outside a bar last April.  Denny was arrested a short distance away.  At the time, Denny was AWOL from the East Coast Forensic Hospital.  He'd been committed to the hospital after being found not criminally responsible for earlier crimes.  Denny had been allowed out on a one-hour pass the night Taavel was killed; a pass that was supposed to allow him to smoke on the edge of the hospital property.  Instead, hours after he disappeared from the hospital, he was arrested not far from where Taavel was murdered.

Denny was supposed to face a preliminary inquiry  last month.  But that hearing was derailed before it even got under way because of Denny's erratic behaviour.  "I fired my lawyer," Denny told the court at the time.  "Because solicitor trust is no longer there."

"He scared the living daylights out of me," Denny added.  "I'm shaking in my boots."  Denny made that comment after claiming his lawyer, Don Murray, threatened him with a knife during a meeting at the forensic hospital.

A month later, a dramatically different picture.  Whereas he appeared agitated and restless during that February appearance, Denny appeared almost drowsy during his latest court session.  At one point, a sheriff's deputy stepped in to help him as he appeared unsteady on his feet.  And Don Murray was back on the job.

For Michael Derrick Robicheau, the transformation between court appearances was even more profound.  

Robicheau has been in custody since he was arrested in August,  2007.  He's admitted to a brutal attack on a woman working the night shift at a Dartmouth gas station.  Robicheau raped her, slit her throat and left her for dead.

During his first court appearances, the wiry Robicheau was restless and fidgety; almost feral in his constant movement.  Once he was remanded to the East Coast Forensic Hospital for treatment, however, all that changed.  

In his most recent court appearances, while lawyers argue whether he should be declared a dangerous offender, Robicheau has been placid to the point where he closes his eyes and appears to doze in court.  He's also much slower and heavier than in those early appearances.

One big difference is that early in his case, Robicheau was found not criminally responsible because of his mental state.  It was only after the heavy medication from his treatment that he was found hit, his trial resumed and his guilty plea was entered.

Just months before Robicheau committed his crime, another Nova Scotia man went on a crime spree that generated headlines in Canada and the United States.

Glen Race has already been convicted of murder for killing a man in upstate New York in May 2007.  He's been sentenced to life for that crime.  Race is also charged with first degree murder for allegedly killing two men here in Nova Scotia before he fled to the U.S.  He has yet to go to trial for the killings of Michael Knott and Trevor Brewster.

There is one vivid image from Race's first murder trial.  It's of him, surrounded by officers in New York and wearing a large plastic collar and mask after he apparently spit at someone.  By the time he returned  to Canada to await trial, a very different picture of Race was emerging.  Like Robicheau and Denny, Race is now housed in the East Coast Forensic Hospital where doctors are medicating all three men to maintain their fitness to stand trial.  Race's demeanor now is as subdued as the other two.

I have seen all three of these men at different stages of each of their cases.

I am struck by how "fit to stand trial" is a far cry from the sort of behaviour and demeanor we expect from people outside of a courtroom or a forensic hospital.
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About the Author

Blair Rhodes has been a journalist for more than 30 years in Atlantic Canada, covering everything from princes to politicians to prostitutes, and a whole lot of stuff in between. These days, he focusses on stories involving crime and public safety.

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