The justice system failed Michael Nehass — and by extension all of us
Joel Krahn/Yukon News
Michael Nehass believes the CIA is out to get him.
He believes senior officials in the Yukon government conspired to silence him because he has information about missing and murdered Indigenous women.
He told a court hearing that jail guards at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre, which has been his home for much of his adult life, stitched fabric laced with carcinogens into his stomach in an effort to kill him.
And at one point, while in custody, Nehass swallowed makeshift razor blades, fashioned from an aluminum beverage can, in order to be taken to the hospital.
Nehass has been in jail since 2011 on charges of assault with a weapon, forcible confinement and breach of probation. At trial, court heard he dragged a woman into a Watson Lake apartment, hit her, grabbed her by the throat and threatened her with a knife. In May 2015 he was found guilty of those charges by a jury after five and a half hours of deliberation.
That’s after Nehass was found mentally unfit for trial by a judge, then fit for trial by the Yukon Review Board in a decision that was confirmed by another judge.
Most recently, he was found unfit for a hearing to have him declared a dangerous offender because the psychosis that plagues him has gotten worse, according to expert testimony.
And this week, Justice Scott Brooker ruled Nehass is in a “legal void” because the Criminal Code does not provide for requiring people convicted of crimes to undergo mental health treatment — in Nehass’s case, a round of anti-psychotic medication that could allow the case to proceed. Brooker was left with no option but to declare a mistrial, meaning Nehass now returns to the trial stage.
Nehass himself has rejected the suggestion that he is mentally ill and has shown himself to be an intelligent person who understands how the court system works. He has fired lawyer after lawyer and acted as his own legal counsel. He has torn apart cells at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre and spat on guards there.
This is a highly abridged recounting of Michael Nehass’s complex and sometimes contradictory legal saga. It’s clear at this point that, unsupervised, Nehass is a danger to himself and to society at large. But that’s no excuse for the seemingly endless legal labyrinth he has endured since his 2011 arrest.
While in jail, Nehass was hauled naked, apart from a blanket, in front of a video hearing. He spent long stretches in segregation at WCC, without being allowed outside and without so much as television for stimulus. He was allowed to stew in his own thoughts without the counselling or medication that could help him.
That is not acceptable. We are not Victorian England. We do not lock the mentally ill into cells and throw away the keys. Many would say we should. That it’s what a man like Nehass deserves. But the self-righteousness of random punters is not justice.
It’s true that Nehass has done bad things. Perhaps he does deserve to be designated a dangerous offender. That’s a matter for a court of law to decide. But it’s telling that the Crown, the judge and the defence all agree Nehass is currently in no condition to undergo such a hearing. It is possible for someone to be both a violent criminal and a victim.
Jail and justice department officials have likewise long believed the WCC is not where Nehass belongs. Yet it was only in November that Nehass was finally relocated to a forensic hospital in Whitby, Ontario, where he can undergo treatment. It should never have taken so long.
“There was a lack of will, resources, and a lack of guidelines,” Nehass’s current lawyer, Anick Morrow, told court in January during her argument in favour of a mistrial. “It’s not about assigning blame but the system breakdown across so many issues.”
Yukon’s justice system has failed Nehass and revealed its complete inability to properly handle complicated cases where violence and mental illness intersect. Nehass is a hard case, and thankfully, those are rare in the Yukon. But there will be others in the future and our justice system must figure out how to deal with them.
The government must review the system and make changes. We owe that much to society, and to Michael Nehass himself.