Friday, 6 June 2008

Mentally ill man cleared of stabbing death

A man diagnosed with schizophrenia has been cleared of murdering a friend who took him into his home as an "act of kindness", with a Sydney judge ruling he was psychotic at the time.

Shaun Troy Slater, 37, admitted fatally stabbing and choking his friend Rodney Graham Smith last March at his Wauchope home, in rural NSW.

Mr Smith, 45, employed Slater as a carpenter some years earlier and the pair formed a friendship over a shared interest in the martial arts.

NSW Supreme Court Justice Michael Adams on Friday found Slater had stopped taking his medication and was suffering acute psychosis at the time of the killing.

"(Mr Smith) was not killed out of an act of wickedness, but out of an act of madness," Justice Adams told the court.

"Accordingly, I find the accused not guilty by virtue of mental illness."

Mr Smith had taken Slater in as a boarder, and asked him to move out after increasing concerns about his apparent mental decline.

Slater believed Mr Smith was trying to poison him and steal his money, and attacked him with a knife following an argument.

Mr Smith died from a stab wound to the chest and strangulation injuries.

After the slaying, Justice Adams said, Slater called police to tell them what he had done, and sat on the verandah with a cup of tea to await their arrival.

"He said later that he thought that would show the police that he did not wish to be violent towards them," the judge said.

Justice Adams said Slater appeared "floridly psychotic" during the ensuing police interview, claiming Mr Smith had "darkness in his eyes" and was stabbed for being a "cheeky prick".

"Without going into detail it's evident that Mr Smith, a friend of the accused ... acted largely out of charity (by taking Slater into his home)," he said.

"That adds an additional layer of sadness to the circumstances here.

"Of course, I understand that this can be no comfort whatever to the parents, family and friends of the deceased, who was killed because he did a kind and generous thing."

Mr Smith's parents wept and shook their heads as Justice Adams found Slater not guilty, offering his condolences for the "terrible nightmare" of their son's death.

While he had made some recovery from his illness, the judge said Slater remained a risk to himself and the community and ordered he not be released until deemed mentally fit.


Long Bay Prison Hospital Locks up patients in cells for 18 hours a day “Today Greens spokesperson Sylvia Hale MLC will move for condemnation of the government’s decision to lock Long Bay patients in cells for 18 hours a day to reduce costs” said Justice Action spokesperson Brett Collins.

Ms SYLVIA HALE [5.07 p.m.]: The Greens call upon the Minister for Justice to reverse the new arrangements at Long Bay prison hospital under which patients are locked in their cells from 3.30 p.m. until 8.30 the following morning. In effect, they are being held in solitary confinement in bare cells that lack even a television set for 17 hours every day. Until 2 April this year, the evening lock-up time was 9.00 p.m. The 53 prisoners subjected to this new regime suffer from severe mental illness. Their suffering will now be worse. Psychiatrists Professor Paul Mullen, Clinical Director of Forensicare, Victoria's peak government forensic mental health authority, in an email to Justice Action, which has been campaigning strongly on the issue, outlined the impact on mentally ill people of placing them in seclusion for long periods. Professor Mullen said:

The placing of mentally disordered individuals in effective isolation for a large part of the day is likely to be even more potentially distressing and disturbing than it would be to the general prison population.

In people with serious mental illness an important element in coping with their active psychotic symptoms is the interaction both with mental health staff and with other custodial staff and fellow prisoners. Left to themselves, the delusions and the hallucinatory experiences become the sole way in which they understand and experience the world. They lose both the reality checks provided by everyday social interactions and the opportunity to obtain some kind of therapeutic assistance through interactions with trained professionals. The effect of this over any lengthy period is to potentially drive them further and further into their psychotic state.

His disquiet is shared by another forensic psychiatrist, Dr Bruce Westmore.

A letter from a patient in Long Bay Prison Hospital to the Minister described the new regime as "maddening, un-therapeutic, destructive, oppressive, savage, barbaric, depressing and frustrating".

But prisoners and psychiatrists are not the only ones to speak out. Alison Peters, the Director of the New South Wales Council of Social Services wrote to the Attorney General and Justice Minister Hatzistergos on 16 May 2008:

NCOSS believes these changes are in breach of New South Wales and International standards for the treatment of people with a mental illness, including the Charter for Mental Health Care in New South Wales

The New South Wales Council of Social Services' fears are shared by the New South Wales Nurses' Association. The General Secretary, Brett Holmes, in a letter to Minister Hatzistergos, reiterated the association's "opposition to the practice of locking down of 'secluding' mentally ill inmates/patients", which they described as "a cost cutting exercise that imposes such deleterious consequences on the physical and mental health of people in your custody". The policy was "completely unacceptable" and deprived patients "of a basic standard of humane care". The Association's letter noted that "locking and isolating mentally ill patients in a room for such extended periods is in direct conflict with the Department of Health policy on seclusion".

The Aboriginal Justice Advisory Council supported the association's position. It cited Recommendation 150 of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and Principles 1.1, 8.1, 9.1 and 20 of the United Nations Principles for the Protection of Persons with Mental Illness, as well as Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provides that "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment". The Aboriginal Justice Advisory Council contended:

…increased lockdown periods may be tantamount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Confining vulnerable or ill individuals in their cells from 3.30 p.m. especially during the warmer months, as well as depriving them of health care, is harsh and additional punishment to the sentence imposed.

Has the change come about because the Premier, the Minister and the Department of Corrective Services are callously indifferent to the welfare of prisoners under their control? Undoubtedly when thumping the law and order drum and trumpeting ever-harsher sentencing regimes, the Government is shameless when it comes to ignoring the rights and needs of vulnerable prisoners.

But there is more to this than sheer callous indifference. What we are witnessing is a simple cost-cutting measure. Under a policy ironically named "Way Forward", 28 prison officers have been removed from the Long Bay prison hospital area. Clearly, if one wants deliberately to understaff a facility, the easiest to go about it is to lock up prisoners in solitary confinement for hours on end, regardless of the effect on their already deeply damaged mental health.

The policy of locking mentally ill prisoners in their cells at 4.00 p.m. rather than 9.00 p.m., as was customary, came into effect on 2 April 2008. It is clearly the intention of Corrective Services that it continue for six months, until October, when a new forensic facility is completed at Long Bay. That is bad enough, but there is a deep unease shared by many that the real intention is for the change to be permanent. It is intolerable that anyone should countenance the existence, let alone the continuation, of this draconian and inhumane regime. The Greens call upon the Minister to end it immediately.

UN Torture Committee Blasts Australia
HRMU at Goulburn, inmates can be kept in inhumane conditions for an indefinite period. Last year, the NSW Coroner was also highly critical that mentally-ill people are placed in isolation in the supermax prison,” Mr Murphy said.

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