Sometimes a right policy results in a wrong result.
Most of the time — including in the case of convicted murderer/diagnosed PTSD sufferer Christopher Garnier — we are better off focusing on the right policy rather than on the occasional unexpected, unhappy wrong result of that policy.
When I was a young freelance journalist, I sold a national magazine on a story about a convicted murderer named Jimmy Odo.
Odo was, in many ways, an odious human being.
In 1974, he’d been charged with the brutal murder of a 15-year-old boy in Point Pleasant Park. As he would concede/brag in a later trial for another murder, Odo had concocted a story for the court in which he pinned the blame for that killing on two other suspects, both of whom eventually committed suicide. As for Odo, his made-up story earned him an acquittal. “I lied in 1974 to beat the charge,” Odo explained in 1981, “but I should have been doing life for it.”
Two years later, in 1976, Odo was convicted of having sexual intercourse with his nine-year-old niece in Sydney and sentenced to five years in federal prison. After serving two-thirds of his sentence, he was released in February 1980 through a then-existing rehabilitation program called mandatory supervision. Under the program designed to gradually re-integrate prisoners who weren’t otherwise eligible for parole back into society, inmates earned the right to serve 15 days of their sentence outside prison under close supervision at the end of their term for every month of “good behaviour” inside.
Odo became one of the program’s most spectacular failures. (Clifford Ols0n was another.)
In June 1981, Odo offered to take his ex-girlfriend’s five-year-old daughter and a friend to a local fair. He didn’t. He murdered the five-year-old instead.
He was tried, convicted — this time of first-degree murder — and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years. (Odo eventually died in prison.)
My pitch to the magazine was simple. Someone inside the system — police, lawyers, psychiatrists, parole officers — must have screwed up. Either that or the system itself was fatally flawed.
The magazine approved the pitch and I began to research.
The problem was that, the deeper I dug, the more difficult it became to identify what I had assumed would be an obvious culprit.
Based on the facts as they understood them at the time — which included Odo’s acquittal on the first murder charge in 1974 — the people inside the system had done their jobs conscientiously and competently. And, while the system failed in Odo’s case, it had worked well for the vast majority of inmates who’d been released back into society under the mandatory release program. Even Odo himself, on closer examination, turned out to be a more complex human being than the sum of his awful crimes.
I submitted a much less certain, far more nuanced story to the magazine, whose editors reasonably rejected it as not the story they’d agreed to. (Atlantic Insight Magazine eventually published it.)
These days. I try to remember Jimmy Odo whenever I encounter a tale like last week’s seemingly inexplicable story of the Veterans Affairs department’s decision to fund Christopher Garnier’s post-traumatic stress disorder treatment in prison.
On September 11, 2015, Garnier murdered Catherine Campbell, a woman he’d met just hours before in a downtown Halifax bar. He dumped her body in a compost bin, which he then pushed through neighbourhood streets before depositing the body under the Macdonald bridge. Garnier later claimed she’d died accidentally during rough sex, but a jury convicted him last December of second-degree murder and interfering with a dead body.
During his parole eligibility hearing, Garnier’s lawyer introduced evidence to suggest Garnier was suffering from PTSD as the result of his murder of Campbell. His treatment in prison, it turns out, is being paid for by Veterans Affairs.
Which, not surprisingly, sparked outrage and condemnation from federal and provincial politicians, as well as veterans.
Garnier, 30, did not serve in the military himself. But his father did. Vince Garnier is being treated for PTSD in connection with his military service, and department policy is to treat family members as part of the treatment of the individual veteran.
“Mental health services may be provided to family members to the extent that they are required to achieve the treatment outcomes that have been established for the veteran client,” in the carefully parsed words of a department spokesperson.
Or, as the department’s chief of psychiatry put it more clearly to CBC News: “If part of the rehab plan for the veteran says that there are issues with a family member that are impeding the veteran from getting well, then a decision can be made to provide care for the family members.”
It’s a reasonable policy. It’s even reasonable in this case, given that its purpose is to help in the recovery of Garnier’s father — a veteran who is not guilty of any crime.
One can understand the outrage of some other veterans, in part because the family program itself does not appear to be well known or routinely offered, and in part because there never seems to be enough government funding available for all the much-needed programs for those who have served our country.
At the same time, there is another reality we need to consider here. Garnier is just 30. According to testimony during his sentencing hearing, he was considered a “decent and thoughtful… pro-social” person before he murdered Campbell. He will likely be in his early 40s when he is released from prison. It is in society’s interest as well as his own — and his father’s — that he receive treatment for his diagnosis of PTSD in prison. Although the judge rejected the defence argument Garnier could not get treatment in a maximum-security facility, the reality is that whatever treatment he gets will inevitably be paid for by taxpayers in one form or another.
If there is any larger good to come out of this episode, it may be that more deserving veterans like Fred Rideout of Windsor, NS., will be able to get help for their own family members. Rideout — who suffers from “PTSD, severe depression and obsessive compulsive disorder” as a result of his time in the military, which included recovery operations after a Labrador plane crash — told the CBC he had never been told members of his own family, who have “been dealing for years with his mental health issues,” might be eligible for assistance.
As upsetting as the Garnier case has been for so many, there is at least the silver lining that others — whose personal situations are far more compelling than those of Christopher Garnier — may now get help they deserve.
A right policy leading — circuitously — to a right result.
Agreed. I felt really uneasy about the outrage I was seeing, even though I understand the frustration, when people who need treatment have trouble accessing it. Treating family members affected by PTSD makes a lot of sense. Treating people who are convicted of crimes for mental illness makes a lot of sense, no matter how they got it.
God, it’s really good to read something sound and nuanced on this to balance out all the unthinking outrage. Kudos.
I agree. I understand where the outrage comes from, given the way the story sounds in the headlines, and especially upon hearing that many veterans were unaware of the program. But to me the outrageous part of the story is not that he should be treated for PTSD while in prison (he absolutely should), or who pays for it (it’s all the gov’t one way or another), but that his defence team tried to use the PTSD as a factor towards reducing the length of his sentence. The PTSD that he developed as a result of the murder.
Gosh darn it Tim, you just keep rolling it out…..interesting and well researched. You and I gotta chat soon, but i already have told others before this that it is about his Father….also there is a connection to the Police as well in regards to his Father……….
This is written by Stephen Kimber.
I have been frustrated reading the inflammatory comments and reporting around this; thank you for providing such a balanced view. As the spouse of a retired military member with ptsd, I have taken advantage of this program (as have our children). It really is in the best interests of everyone that this program be in place – otherwise we’d all just be playing ptsd-hot potato for the rest of our lives. PTSD affects the entire family.
I can’t help but wonder what the background is here – how long did Chris Garnier live in a household with someone suffering from (un)diagnosed ptsd? Did it contribute to his later heinous crime? Who knows. I am uneasy about him getting this treatment, but really…WHY are people so upset that someone who is obviously mentally ill (healthy people don’t murder others) is getting help? It’s such a potent mix of issues here, not the least of which is that many people seem to think that prison is meant to be a punishing warehouse where people stew in their own guilt, rather than a place where people are rehabilitated.
“healthy people don’t murder others”
I remind you that people with mental illness are far more likely to be VICTIMS of violent crime, not perpetrators of it.
I agree. Media stoking outrage rather than making the obvious point that rehab is essential to his success in returning to society when he is released.