The Current

Forensic psychiatrist opens up on months spent analyzing killer Luka Magnotta

Dr. Joel Watts' job isn't to treat, but assess mental state — a look into a side of the criminal justice system Canadians rarely hear about.
Luka Rocco Magnotta is taken by police from a Canadian military plane to a waiting van on Monday, June 18, 2012 in Mirabel, Que. (The Canadian Press)

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On June 18, 2012, Luka Magnotta was captured in Germany and returned to Canada to be tried for the murder of 33-year-old Jun Lin.

On that Berlin-to-Montreal flight was Dr. Joel Watts, a forensic psychiatrist at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. Watts sat in the aisle next to Magnotta for the trip, in order to observe him, and assess whether he was in distress or needed medication.

Watts has recently written about his experience working on the Magnotta case for Shrunk: Crime and Disorders of the Mind, a new book that goes behind such cases through the forensic psychologists and psychiatrists who worked on them. 

[Magnotta] was talking about someone looking at him through the window, being persecuted by a woman named Debbie, he was talking about Stephen Harper persecuting him.- Dr. Joel Watts, forensic psychiatrist 

Looking back on their first meeting, Watts says he was struck by how unwell Magnotta looked and that he appeared to be "genuinely quite psychotic." 

Watts spent months interviewing Magnotta, and upon determining that his actions were "psychotically motivated," Watts says he felt nervous.

"I then realized, uh-oh, I'm going to have to actually testify at a trial and my opinion is not going to be really popular," Watts says.

The unpopular opinion: Watts' finding that Magnotta was not criminally responsible for the murder of Jun Lin. 

Watts discusses the responsibility he felt to testify, attempts to discredit him at trial, the potential trauma experienced by viewing videos made by murderers and his controversial view of the people who commit these crimes.

"Human beings are capable of horrible things, but those same human beings can also be not unpleasant to speak to one-on-one," Watts says. "That doesn't mean that I condone what they do, or would want to be friends with them, but the reality is that it's not an unpleasant thing to do, to spend time getting to know these individuals and trying to understand why it is they did what they did." 

This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.