by Lise LaSalle
In 2011, Quebec cardiologist Guy Turcotte was found not criminally responsible for the stabbing deaths in February 2009 of his two young children Olivier, 5, and Anne Sophie, 3. He was recently arrested after Quebec’s Court of Appeal ordered him to stand trial again. This time, he is facing two charges of 1st degree murder.
Turcotte was back in the prisoner’s box last week and is scheduled to return to court Jan. 10, 2014 when a new trial date will be set. There will be no preliminary hearing.
This case was one of the most notorious court decisions in Canadian legal history. It led to the creation of new federal legislation designed to put more barriers between those found not criminally responsible and their freedom.
During his high profile 1st degree murder trial, Turcotte admitted stabbing his daughter and son a total of 46 times after a bad breakup with their mother. Because he drank windshield-wiper fluid in a failed attempt to commit suicide, the jury accepted his argument that he had experienced a blackout and had hardly any memories of that fatal night. He was locked up in a mental institution and later deemed fit for release after 46 months of psychiatric care.
Now he is back to square one.
My initial reaction to this turn of event was to say Holy Crap! What a mess and a complicated one at that. Having little expertise in psychiatry or advanced psychology, I decided to consult with a couple of professionals I had worked with in the past.
I contacted a retired Montreal psychiatrist and a psychologist who did her Post-Doctoral work at a psychiatric hospital in Boston. I was anticipating interesting assessments.
Well, I kid you not, they both opened up with the same comment: ‘The case of Guy Turcotte, Holy Crap!’
After their initial expletives, they had plenty to say but nothing definitive — the case was just too complex. This psychiatrist told me from the start that he was mighty glad to be retired and not to have been the one to sign Turcotte’s release papers from the Philippe Pinel Institute.
He went on to say that it was an extremely difficult case because you have to be in a psychotic state to kill your own children, but in Turcotte case’s, only depression and adaptation disorders were brought up by the experts at trial. The intensity of his depression was never even discussed. In Europe, they have a crime category called ‘Crimes of passion’ which includes jealousy, revenge, rage, etc., which are considered to be mitigating factors at sentencing, but Canada has no such laws. The psychiatrist thought that the fact Turcotte was a doctor might possibly have played favorably in the jury’s mind. He felt that keeping him in a mental institution for 15-20 years would not have served any purpose either. He added, however, that with him a free man, his ex-wife might feel threatened for the rest of her life, justifiably so or not. The term ‘criminally not responsible’ still echoes in his mind and is a hard pill to swallow. He finds it probable that Turcotte had a personality disorder with narcissistic tendencies that went undiagnosed before the tragic death of his children. But would he have recommended another trial? Probably not.
My second ‘expert’ is the mother of two boys so the expletives lasted a little longer. She really had to practice detachment to give an informed opinion on this case. As a professional, she wanted to know more about Turcotte’s mental incapacity on that fateful night. Was he suffering from chronic depression, did he have a history of psychotic behavior? And mostly, she wanted to know if he really drank the methanol before or after stabbing his children? He testified that he drank it first and decided he did not want the children to find him dead but could that be scientifically proven? How was he able to rationalize this if he was under the influence? She believes that intoxication should not have rendered him criminally not responsible. Because he made a conscious decision to drink it, and as a doctor, he knew it would impair his judgement. She supports the new trial because based on the mild nature of the psychological problems presented at trial, the jury was perhaps not properly instructed on the criminal responsibility he should have faced. The jury’s instructions may have been deficient. A new trial would allow his lawyers to present a more revealing psychiatric assessment of their client.
The appeals court’s verdict leans in her direction: ‘’The burden of proof was on the accused to show that he was suffering from an incapacitating mental illness – distinct from the intoxication symptoms – and it was the jury’s job to decide.’’
The new trial seems to be based on confusion over the instructions offered by the judge and the prosecution while delivering its arguments. The jury might not have had enough of a clear and concise blueprint with which to deliberate. I wonder what those five men and seven women would have to say about that. The fact that they took six days to deliberate shows that they took their jobs very seriously.
The trial was not televised, as it is not an acceptable practice in Canada, but had garnered national media attention. Thirty-nine witnesses testified including Turcotte and his parents and numerous mental health experts. News of the not criminally responsible verdict had spread like wildfire and people on social media discussed the outcome incessantly. Many celebrities expressed their personal disgust on public forums.
Veteran lawyer and former Quebec prosecutor Robert La Haye came out to say that the public’s emotional response was not surprising, but it was important to know that juries were not supposed to be populist. They were supposed to render justice based on evidence.
Not much was said about Guy Turcotte at his trial except for the facts of the case. He had been married to Isabelle Gaston, an emergency room doctor, since 2003, and they had been together since 1999. Their relationship had its ups and downs but nothing out of the ordinary. He had no history of mental illness and never had any trouble with the law. They both came from good, decent hard working families and were high achievers who became respected professionals. As much as the parties tried to dig into his past, they could not find anything significant and it was not from lack of trying.
Even if problems might have been brewing beneath the surface, the visible troubles began when he found out that his wife Isabelle was having an affair with their good friend and personal trainer Martin, whose wife found out that their respective spouses were in love and delivered the news to Turcotte. He was utterly devastated. Having always been more of a loner and an introvert than his bubbly, sociable wife Isabelle, he took it really hard. In many respects it sounded like the typical betrayal story reported by many jilted lovers. When Isabelle finally admitted to the affair, Guy collapsed into her arms and said he couldn’t make it without her.
He did not take the split well and his parents tried to support him throughout the ordeal. He moved out of the family home and was in the process of purchasing a new place for himself and the kids when the tragedy took place. He could not let go and would call Isabelle often. He would visit ‘his house’ without calling first and would get into arguments with her about his former best friend living there and having access to the kids. On balance, very typical behavior during a contentious divorce.
Isabelle Gaston never saw the storm coming. She trusted Guy Turcotte with his children as he had always been a great dad. So when he took them for the weekend to his temporary rental home north of Montreal, she was not worried. As a matter of fact, she was going away with some of her girlfriends and never had any hesitations even though she knew he was distraught. She was moving on and maybe trying to convince herself that everything would be fine.
Meanwhile, the scorned wife of Isabelle’s new beau had found e-mails written by the lovebirds and had sent them to Turcotte. After picking up the kids for the weekend, he arrived at his rental home after having made a stop at the local store to buy food and videos. He had also stopped at the pharmacy to get a rash cream for Anne-Sophie and an asthma medication for Olivier. He said he watched a movie with the kids on the couch and that he cried uncontrollably. Little Olivier tried to comfort him and dried his tears.
After putting the children to bed, Turcotte talked to his mother on the phone and spent time on his computer. His mother testified that he sounded very disconnected and she was afraid he might be contemplating suicide. She tried to talk her husband into driving there to check on him, but he thought his wife was overreacting and suggested going the following morning.
There in the house, Turcotte’s mind turned to the e-mails written by Isabelle and her lover. The two were passionate and seemingly very much in love. Nothing like Isabelle had ever been with him, he said during his testimony. By his own admission, he drank methanol to kill himself but decided he did not want the kids to find him dead in the morning. We have to deduce that he grabbed a couple of knives and eventually went upstairs to stab Olivier and Anne-Sophie 46 times. He testified that he wanted to stab himself in the heart but could not find the knives as he was too disoriented.
When his parents showed up at the house in the morning, there was no answer but the car was parked outside. They called the police and entered the residence. They went upstairs and found the carnage. Their grandkids were covered with blood in their beds. Their son was under a bed. If they had not arrived at the house, Turcotte might have died a slow death from the ingestion of methanol. Downstairs, they found his computer, some documents on ‘narcissism’, and a child video of Caillou still in the DVD player. There was a practically empty container of methanol upstairs.
At the hospital where he was taken by ambulance, Turcotte refused treatment saying he was a criminal. He did not want to sign any authorization. The staff knew him and had to keep their overwhelming emotions in check. He was rambling about having given his wife everything without getting any appreciation in return. He was soon transferred to another hospital because of the clear conflict of interest involved in being treated by his peers, who were revolted by his actions. He was then taken to the Pinel Institute in Montreal for assessment. The patients at this psychiatric institute have all committed violent crimes. During his detention, Isabelle had one phone conversation with her husband. She asked him why he did it. Why the kids? She told him she would have given her life for them and he answered ‘’me too’’. That was it. They exchanged a few very cold letters later on about dividing their assets.
During his three month trial, Turcotte testified that he only remembered the evening in flashes. The court heard that little Olivier tried in vain to talk his father out of killing him, crying ‘’no papa,’’ before being stabbed in the stomach. Turcotte was sobbing during his testimony. Apparently, they found Anne-Sophie with strands of her own hair in her hands, which indicates she was wide awake during her father’s attack.
After the trial, when Turcotte was found not criminally responsible by a jury of his peers, it would probably have been the end of the story if not for the public outrage felt all over Canada.
It just so happened that a wheat and canola farmer from Manitoba named Bob Latimer was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for ten years for the mercy killing of his handicapped daughter who suffered from cerebral palsy. Latimer was ready to risk incarceration to save her from an upcoming ‘mutilation and torture’ medical procedure that would have left her in excruciating pain. She died in his truck from carbon monoxide poisoning. Far from the cruelty of a stabbing. But the jury had no mercy on him. And now we have this father who savagely executes his two children because his wife left him and he is not criminally responsible? What’s next? Dancing With the Stars?
Is the fact that Turcotte was a handsome cardiologist a factor with the jury? Maybe the female jurors saw him as a potential mate for one of their daughters or as superior to a simple farmer? Or was it the intoxication factor?
Does it mean that Jodi Arias would have been let off the hook had she drank a shot of windshield wiper fluid? Or that Drew Peterson should have ingested methanol before drowning his former wife? Farmer Latimer forgot to get intoxicated before letting his daughter die peacefully.
The jury never heard that Turcotte refused to pay for his children’s funerals or that he had told his wife that if she wanted war, she was going to get it. Would it have made a difference? So many questions and so very few answers.
Isabelle Gaston’s life has obviously been a roller coaster of emotions and even if she welcomes this retrial, she is still in shock. She was only starting to regain some sense of normalcy and will now be tossed in the middle of another storm. She intends to be there to represent her two children. She has since remarried.
Public support has always been on Isabelle Gaston’s side but a small faction still thinks she should have shouldered part of the blame. Treating him with such disregard and having an affair with a good friend of the family. Parading that friend in front of the kids in poor Guy Turcotte’s house after he had tried so hard to be a good husband and father. I am convinced that she carries some guilt to this day for not realizing how dangerously troubled her former husband was and for going away on a weekend of fun with the girls while he was minding the kids and falling to pieces.
For some, this is a clear cut case of cold-blooded murder that should land Turcotte behind bars for the rest of his life. For others, it is a case of temporary insanity in a long, productive and upstanding life. Does it mean that he should do time in jail or remain on the outside and work in a subsidized clinic helping the poor and the disadvantaged? That would be rich man’s justice and nobody ever asked poor farmer Latimer to plant wheat instead of doing time. And our justice system should to be fair to all or as some of you would say, unfair to all.
In the name of the father Guy Turcotte, we shall see what this new trial will dredge up; no doubt, a lot of Holy Crap!
Note: After a retrial was announced, Guy Turcotte appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada to contest the decision to overturn the jury trial’s not-guilty verdict in his children’s killings. His appeal was rejected and he will be tried a second time as there is no double jeopardy in Canada.
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