Ottawa

Legal experts defend mental health laws after Jeff Weber ruling

Legal experts say although the case of Jeff Weber — the Ottawa man with schizophrenia who attacked another man with a hammer in December 2014 — represents a rare 'failure,' the recidivism rate for those found not criminally responsible is actually low.

Case a rare 'failure,' but recidivism rate for those found not criminally responsible tends to be low

Jeff Weber, 32, has been found not criminally responsible for a violent hammer attack in Ottawa's Centretown neighbourhood in December 2014. It's the fourth time Weber has been found not criminally responsible for serious crimes. (Sketch by Laurie Foster-MacLeod)

A case involving a 32-year-old Ottawa man with treatment-resistant schizophrenia who was found not criminally responsible on Thursday for a brutal hammer attack is raising questions about the law and the mental health system. 

The ruling marked the fourth time Jeff Weber has been declared NCR — believed to be a Canadian record.

Over the past ten years, Weber has cycled through the criminal courts and the mental health system with alarming regularity.

Victim Nabute Ghebrehiwet says he was surprised by the judge's ruling on Thursday. (Simon Gardner/CBC)

His offences range from assaulting and terrorizing a young woman in British Columbia to attempting to abduct a 10-year-old girl from a Toronto hotel.

In each case he was found to be so mentally ill he was incapable of knowing what he was doing was wrong.

The latest ruling has people including the victim of the latest attack, Nabute Ghebrehiewet, questioning the use of the NCR defence in cases involving individuals who are likely to reoffend.

Weber case 'one in a million'

In December 2014 Weber bludgeoned the 55-year-old stranger with a hammer, blinding him in one eye.

"I never thought he would get away with this a fourth time," said Ghebrehiwet.

Ottawa lawyer Lawrence Greenspon says the laws governing mentally ill offenders are actually working very well. (Simon Gardner/CBC)
Lawrence Greenspon, an Ottawa defence lawyer, said the laws governing mentally ill offenders are actually working very well.

"The Jeff Weber case is one in a million, it's unprecedented as far as we know in Canadian legal history and, as tragic as it was, the fact that it is so unusual I think is a good sign," said Greenspon.

"It means that with the limited resources that are available, the mental health system and the treatment of the hundreds of thousands of people who are having mental health challenges is by and large working because this case is so unusual and so rare, fortunately."

Lower recidivism rate in NCR cases

Jennifer Chandler, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and an expert in mental health law, said before Thursday's decision that unlike Weber, most offenders found not criminally responsible because of a mental disorder do not commit more crimes after they're treated and released back into the community.

Jennifer Chandler says most offenders found not criminally responsible because of a mental disorder do not commit more crimes after they are treated and released back into the community. (Simon Gardner/CBC)
"The recidivism rate for people who are found not criminally responsible tends to be lower or the same as people without a mental disorder who are released at the end of the sentence. So we have to careful not to imagine that as a group they are much more dangerous than everybody else, which is not true," said Chandler.

Unlike criminal convictions, offenders who are found not criminally responsible are placed under the authority of provincial review boards. Reviews are held once a year. 

"We are almost safer with people who have been found NCR because they are under such a microscope. And they have teams looking and following them as opposed to just a probation officer," said Chandler.

However, she said there are rare cases  where the only option may be incarceration in a high-security psychiatric facility.

Next steps for Weber

Within the next 45 days, the Ontario Review Board will hold a hearing to decide Weber's future. It was only last month that the board held an annual review because of Weber's previous NCR ruling dating from the attack on the woman in British Columbia.

For now, he will remain in the secure unit of the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre in Ottawa, but may soon be transferred to an even more secure facility such as the Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care in Penetanguishene, Ont.

"This was a failure, this was a very tragic failure and the result is that he's not going to be outside an institution anytime soon, that is for sure," said Greenspon.

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