Copyright © 1999 The
Seattle Times Company
Local News : Saturday,
September 04, 1999
Criminal-insane plea is different in
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
"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
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
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
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
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.