Man behind college machete attack seeks release from Restigouche Hospital

A former soldier who attacked three people with a machete-style knife at a Fredericton college four years ago is seeking a conditional release from Restigouche Hospital Centre which would allow him to live in the community under conditions.

Luke Powers, deemed not criminally responsible in 2014 due to PTSD, faces review board hearing in Campbellton

Luke Powers of Fredericton speaks to his lawyer Mercedes Perez after his review board hearing Tuesday. He was largely silent during the proceedings, only speaking to clarify a few issues about his living situation at Restigouche Hospital Centre. (Tori Weldon/CBC)

A former soldier who attacked three people with a machete-style knife at a Fredericton college four years ago is seeking a conditional release from Restigouche Hospital Centre which would allow him to live in the community under conditions.

Luke Powers made the request to a review board at the Campbellton courthouse Tuesday during an approximately seven-hour hearing, which included expert testimony, emotional victim impact statements and character witnesses.

Powers, who is in his mid-30s, has been at the northern New Brunswick psychiatric facility since April 2014 when he pleaded guilty to swinging a 43-centimetre knife at an instructor and two fellow students at Eastern College, sending them to hospital.

He was found not criminally responsible for his actions because he was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at the time of the attack.

Powers currently lives in an unlocked group-home section of the hospital. Since June 2017, he has been allowed overnight stays away from the centre when accompanied by a family member.

Now, he wants to move to Moncton and possibly get his own apartment.

The three-member review board has reserved decision until Wednesday at 8:30 a.m., at Restigouche Hospital Centre.

Victims speak

The husband of the instructor who was seriously injured and required surgery after Powers slashed her head, arm and hand, testified against Powers' release.

It was a violent attack, the man stressed, urging the board to stop calling it an "incident."

During the 2014 trial, the courtroom heard Powers also struck a friend in the head with the knife multiple times and bit another student who helped to subdue him.

One of the witnesses to the attack, who told the review board he was speaking on behalf of several people, recounted seeing a dangling hand and blood pooling.

The memories of this attack will affect us the rest of our lives.- Witness

He described the fear he felt when Powers, dressed all in black, said to the class, "Good morning boys and girls, who is ready to die today?"

"The memories of this attack will affect us the rest of our lives," the man said.

A young woman, who fought back tears as she gave her victim impact statement, said she called 911, not knowing if anyone at the private career college was dead.

She said she doesn't like to think of herself as a victim, but now suffers from PTSD, which has changed her career path and put her life on hold. Her symptoms include fear and anxiety, lack of sleep and substance abuse.

She had befriended Powers before the attack and now questions her own judgment and has difficulty trusting people, the board heard.

She said she wanted Powers to hear what she had to say, but he opted to leave the courtroom during the victim impact statements.

Low risk

Two medical experts testified Powers is considered low risk to reoffend and allowing him to re-enter society with the proper treatment and support in place would help his progress.

Dr. Yves Turgeon is a clinical neuropsychologist at Restigouche Hospital Centre who interviewed Powers three times and conducted about 10 hours of tests focused on his personality and expression of anger brain function. He said he found no red flags and overall "a relatively low risk of grave violent behaviour."

"I'm sure in a couple of years he'll be able to find a place" and become a productive community member, said Turgeon.

But Crown prosecutor Steve McNair argued there are too many unknowns.

"There needs to be a bit more clarity" about Powers' diagnosis, course of treatment and discharge plans, he said.

Powers' lawyer Mercedes Perez countered Powers' medical team can't develop a plan until a discharge order is given. She stressed Powers has gone more than four years without incident and will agree to any conditions the board sets.

Powers' brother, Adam Powers, who lives in Ottawa, testified on his behalf via teleconference. He said Powers is a "great uncle" to his two children and he has no concerns about their safety when they're with him, including a recent trip together to Magic Mountain.

He said there are clear signs when Powers is not well and he's willing to report any concerns.

Retired Rev. Ross Wiseman also testified in support of Powers, saying he took responsibility for his actions  and felt remorse.

"You could sense genuine regret," he said. Power's friend Shelley Bridger, who is Wiseman's niece by marriage, submitted a letter of support.

Powers, pictured here before the 2014 attack, lives in an unlocked group-home section of the Restigouche Hospital Centre and was granted overnight leaves last year. (Facebook)

Earlier in the day, a forensic psychiatrist, who started working at Restigouche about six months ago, testified he recommends a conditional discharge for Powers and possibly his own apartment, with regular visits from a member of his clinical team.  

Dr. Christopher Bryniak told the review board Powers may not need to be in hospital, but he does need some structure and treatment.

A complete discharge could be a risk "at this stage," said Bryniak, who spent eight to 12 hours with Powers over about eight weeks.

In extreme circumstances, removing all structure could be a pathway to "decompensation," meaning a deterioration of an individual's mental health, he said.

"Even if decompensation happens, it doesn't necessarily mean violence?" asked defence lawyer Perez.

Bryniak agreed that violence is not inevitable, but said he would not support a plan that does not address the risk.

Positive prognosis

Still, he described Powers' prognosis as positive.

"[His PTSD] is in remission," said Bryniak, as are "the vast majority" of his other psychiatric issues, including an anxiety disorder, a neurocognitive disorder, depression and cannabis abuse.

Powers is not currently taking any anti-psychotic medications, the review board heard. His primary medications are for anxiety, depression and insomnia.

He does not meet the clinical definition of a psychopath and prior to the attack, had no criminal history, Bryniak said.

As he spoke, a young woman who attended the hearing to present a victim impact statement left the room in tears.

Powers may have also had a seizure, said Bryniak, noting the paramedics described him as being confused at the time of the attack. 

Powers was charged with two counts of indictable aggravated assault, and one count of indictable assault.

He admitted to the facts of the case, but said he didn't remember what happened.

His defence lawyer at the trial said Powers had a physically and mentally abusive upbringing, was in a serious accident in the military in which he was engulfed in flames and also went through a bad relationship breakup.

The review board panel members Tuesday included Lyne Raymond, Marcel Arseneau, and Dr. David Addelman.

With files from Tori Weldon