Copyright 1999 The Seattle Times Company

Local News : Saturday, September 04, 1999

Criminal-insane plea is different in Canada

by Ian Ith
Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Thanks to a Canadian Supreme Court ruling eight years ago, it's far easier there for criminals to be cleared by claiming insanity than it is in the United States.

Still, many legal experts in Canada were surprised, and some rankled, that Julia Campagna of Seattle walked away scot-free from a British Columbian courtroom yesterday after causing an explosive car crash at the Blaine border last year that killed two Canadian women.

"Before, this woman would have been locked up in a mental hospital for the criminally insane, and she probably would have spent 15 or 20 years there," said Don Egleston, a law professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

"It's an unhappy situation from the victims' point of view - a woman got off, and two girls are dead. But the only justification for keeping a person in custody now, the court says, is if they need treatment."

Yesterday, British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Thimersingh Singh ruled that Campagna, 28, poses no risk to the public and therefore faces no obligation for the crash at the Peace Arch. Two days earlier, he agreed that she was "not criminally responsible by reason of mental illness."

Kimberly Brooks, 18, and Monique Ishikawa, 19, died May 30, 1998, when Campagna's speeding car smashed into the back of their car, causing it to burst into flames. The crash was caught on a traffic-monitoring camera at the border and was aired widely on television.

Campagna said she was suffering psychotic delusions brought on by taking the over-the-counter diet drug Xenadrine, which she was taking to lose weight to train for a marathon.

"She wasn't known to be a junkie," said Crown Counsel Robert Bonner, the prosecutor in the case. "She was more of a health nut than anything."

Campagna said she heard Dallas Stars hockey center Joe Nieuwendyk's voice on the radio of her car - which she thought was an airplane - beckoning her to speed to Canada to conceive a child with him.

Xenadrine contains Citrus Aurantium, Guarana and the amino acid Acetyl L-Carnitine, among other ingredients. No one really knows how the active ingredient, Ephedrine, reacts with these, said David Dunner, a University of Washington psychiatry professor.

"Ephedrine has stimulantlike effects," Dunner said. "Over-the-counter products can have a multitude of things in them. I don't know how well-controlled that product is." But any drug can cause psychosis, depending on a person's personal genetics and chemistry, he said.

Prosecutors in Campagna's case agreed to the judge's ruling that the drug induced temporary psychosis, the equivalent to a verdict in the U.S. of not guilty by reason of insanity. But they asked for a supervised release, Bonner said.

"We didn't agree to this thing just to be agreeable," he said. "Our psychiatrist said she was psychotic and delusional and wasn't criminally responsible. Unless we say she's lying to us or is not competent, that's our case. Sometimes you have to do stuff like that when that's what the law says."

But as people on two sides of the border debate the relative merits of two legal systems, most experts also say cases like Campagna's are a rarity in both countries.

"It's not like this change in the law has opened the floodgates on either side, letting people in or out," said Steve Hart, a forensic psychology professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

Dan Satterberg, chief of staff for King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng, said agreed insanity pleas aren't unheard of in the U.S. Just last week, for example, prosecutors agreed that Marc Gerson of Redmond was not guilty by reason of insanity for setting fire to his family's home, killing his sister and her son.

But the difference here, experts say, is what happens to people after they are found insane.

In Washington, Satterberg said, insane defendants, like Gerson, almost always are committed to a mental hospital indefinitely and are only released when doctors and the court find them well.

If Campagna was charged in Washington and tried to go free by claiming the drug caused temporary insanity, she would have to plead "diminished capacity," meaning that at the time of the crash she didn't know right from wrong, Satterberg said.

"That's a complete defense and they walk," Satterberg said. "But as terrible as that sounds, it's extremely rare. I can't think of one case in the last 10 years. People are probably skeptical of the claim that `I didn't have the capacity then, but I have the capacity now.' "

A recent example is Alex Baranyi, who tried to argue he was mentally ill in January 1997 when he murdered four members of the Wilson family in Bellevue. That defense didn't fly, and Baranyi is now serving life without parole.

That's the way it used to be in Canada, until 1991, when the national Supreme Court ruled that indefinitely locking up the insane in hospitals was cruel and unusual. Criminal law had to be rewritten.

For one, the verdict was renamed from "not guilty by reason of insanity" to "not criminally responsible by reason of mental illness." But the new law also mandated that no one be held in a hospital if they are not dangerous, regardless of how they were when they committed the crime.

"She's employed; she hasn't had a psychotic episode for many months," Bonner said of Campagna. "There didn't seem any reason, for public safety or otherwise, to lock her up."

But not everyone in Canada thinks it's the just way to handle people who commit serious crimes.

"There are a tremendous number of people in Canada who are very, very unhappy with the way the law was changed," Egleston said. "There's been a tremendous amount of backlash."

But Hart said his studies have found that only about one in 1,000 Canadian defendants is found not criminally responsible by reason of mental illness, and hardly any of them go free.

"Whenever someone gets off, there's always a lot of soul-searching," Hart said. "The question is never black or white."

Seattle Times staff reporter Sally Farhat contributed to this report.