Christopher Garnier’s PTSD: right policy, wrong result, better outcome…

Christopher Garnier

This column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner September 3, 2018.

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 Olsen 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 the story in October 1982.)

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.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner. To read the latest column, please subscribe.

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