HALIFAX - A mentally ill man accused of fatally beating a gay activist in Halifax has no history of homophobia but is prone to violence when off his medication and intoxicated, his lawyer said Wednesday after the accused made his first appearance in court.
Defence lawyer Pavel Boubnov also said Andre Noel Denny, diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was a teenager, should not have been granted a one-hour leave from a local psychiatric facility on Monday night — more than five hours before 49-year-old Raymond Taavel was found badly beaten outside a gay bar in downtown Halifax.
Police say Taavel died at the scene around 2:30 a.m. Tuesday after he tried to break up a fight between two men outside Menz Bar, which describes itself as the "Heart of Halifax's Gay Village."
Investigators say they were asked to look for Denny just before 9 p.m. when he failed to return to the East Coast Forensic Hospital.
Denny, 32, was formally charged Wednesday with second-degree murder. As sheriffs led him to the courtroom, the stocky man turned his gaze to the flash of cameras and shouted, "Drunken fight."
"Self-defence," he said, shrugging. "What can I say?"
He sat silently in leg shackles and looked toward the floor while a few family members watched and wept. He was ordered to undergo a 30-day psychiatric assessment and his case was adjourned until May 17.
Outside the courtroom, Boubnov said Denny "relapses quite often, especially when he takes substances. ... He's a very, very sick man."
Investigators have not ruled out the possibility that Taavel's death was motivated by hate. But Boubnov said his client has no history of hate crimes. "It's not something which clearly comes from his history," Boubnov said.
Boubnov said Denny is not violent when he is taking his medication and avoids alcohol, though he said it was his understanding Denny was drinking Monday night.
Carol Millett, a friend and colleague of Taavel's, rejected the notion that Denny was acting out of self-defence.
"Raymond was all about love and compassion," Millett said outside court. "He would have hugged Mr. Denny's family today because that's the kind of person Raymond was."
Millett said she wanted to attend Denny's court appearance out of respect for all gay, lesbian and transgendered people who've been the victims of senseless violence.
"That issue cannot be forgotten about because Mr. Denny is under psychiatric assessment. That would do an injustice to all those people who have died already from hate and anger."
Another of Taavel's colleagues, Tynette Deveaux, questioned why Denny was released from the psychiatric facility to begin with.
"What he was doing out on an hour-long pass makes no sense to me," she said.
Boubnov said he was considering asking the court for a hearing to determine if Denny is fit to stand trial. Boubnov said he was also considering a defence strategy aimed at having his client declared "not criminally responsible" for his actions.
Under the Criminal Code, an accused can be declared not criminally responsible if their mental disorder renders them either incapable of appreciating the nature of their actions or unable to understand that their actions were wrong.
In September 2009, Denny was charged with slitting a dog's throat and uttering threats. In a court decision regarding his fitness to stand trial, the judge reported Denny's testimony was "sprinkled with delusions."
"He appears to be able to string together and follow a line of thought, although delusional thinking is apt to insinuate itself at almost any point," said Judge A. Peter Ross.
In that case, Denny was declared not criminally responsible for his actions.
Earlier Wednesday, Premier Darrell Dexter offered his condolences to Taavel's family and friends, saying the province has lost a person who devoted his life to fighting discrimination, violence and intolerance.
"It is tragic and so sad that it takes the brutal killing of someone like Raymond to remind us all of what he so clearly understood," Dexter told the legislature.
"In this house, and in this province, we must all reaffirm our support for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community. And we must also reaffirm our support for the many other communities that have been the object of hate and misunderstanding, including those who suffer from serious mental illness."
The government says it will conduct a review along with the Capital District Health Authority to determine why Denny was temporarily released and whether policies and procedures were followed. It expects to get an update on the progress of the review in 30 days.
Archie Kaiser, a law professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said he was worried that people could be jumping to conclusions about what happened.
"My major concern in this case is a harsh and punitive reaction that could be damaging to the public's understanding of mental illness and could set the law and policy in a backward direction," said Kaiser.
"We have to be careful here not to make assumptions about the system and the individual that are unwarranted."
Kaiser said it would be wrong to assume that Denny was not held accountable for his actions simply because he was declared not criminally responsible in previous cases.
The special verdict triggers an ongoing assessment process by the Criminal Code Review Board that is designed to seek rehabilitation and reintegration into society while ensuring protection of the public. The board can provide a range of disposition orders, including absolute discharges, conditional discharges or detainment in a secure forensic hospital.
"By no means is the accused exempt from accountability," said Kaiser. "It just means he or she is not punished as if he or she were a regular offender. The state still retains control over the individual, sometimes for a very extended period and with quite rigid ways of controlling the accused's movements or confining them."
The East Coast Forensic Hospital, which is attached to Nova Scotia's largest provincial jail, typically includes offenders from the jail who require attention, as well as patients found not fit to stand trial and others found not criminally responsible for their actions.
The review board typically includes at least one lawyer, a psychiatrist and a lay person. It decides on what level of community access patients should have, if at all, said Aileen Brunet, the hospital's clinical director.
At a minimum, board hearings are held every year, she said.
"Our focus is on recovery and community reintegration," she said. "People who are going in and out of the building are passing under the eyes of clinical staff repeatedly."
Typically, about three-quarters of the hospital's 80 beds are occupied, and at least three-quarters of those patients are given daily passes in the community, Brunet said.
On any given week, it's not unusual for some offenders to show up late, she said.
"It certainly can happen," she said. "Particularly for those taking buses."
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