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Sean Clifton now understands the seriousness of his actions and is deeply remourseful. (Lars Hagberg/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Sean Clifton now understands the seriousness of his actions and is deeply remourseful. (Lars Hagberg/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Film explores the meaning of ‘not criminally responsible’ Add to ...

When the stranger with wild hair and wilder eyes plunged a knife into the young woman’s chest outside a Wal-Mart, screaming as he continued stabbing, she thought she was going to die.

In that terrifying moment, the 22-year-old victim didn’t know much about mental illness or the delusions that whipped Sean Clifton, a local oddball in Cornwall, Ont., into a violent frenzy.

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When he was found not criminally responsible and sent to a mental hospital, those close to his victim wanted to know why he wasn’t going to prison.

She has an answer for them now: “He was very ill.”

“I can’t imagine in a daily life having to go through all that,” she said in a recent interview.

“So I understand that why that happened to me that day was because he was sick. It wasn’t personal, it was just being there at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

While the woman who gives her first name as Julie no longer lives in fear, enough trauma lingers from the attack 13 years ago that she does not want her last name used.

Remarkably, though, she feels no anger toward Mr. Clifton. In fact, she feels empathy for the man. She is angry, however, at the mental health system that failed to catch him on his downward spiral.

Julie has been given a glimpse into the life and mind of her mentally ill attacker that most victims, and the general public, rarely get.

Mr. Clifton, 46, is at the centre of a new documentary, NCR: Not Criminally Responsible, which illustrates an often misunderstood system now under scrutiny due to some high-profile cases and changes proposed by the Conservative government.

The film, from Emmy-winning Canadian director John Kastner, shows the process people go through from the time of an NCR finding to their release into the community.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Mr. Clifton reflected on his life before and after the stabbing, on his anxieties about how he will come across in the film and on the politics of the issue. He hopes the documentary helps destigmatize mental illness.

Mr. Clifton was sent to the Brockville Mental Health Centre in Ontario in 2000 after his NCR finding, which meant his mental illness rendered him incapable of knowing what he did was wrong.

With a dual diagnosis of obsessive compulsive disorder and schizophrenia, Mr. Clifton was one of the sickest patients the staff had ever encountered, they say in the documentary.

After years of treatment he is capable again of rational thought, of reflection and of remorse. He has rediscovered old interests and is an avid CBC radio listener, eager to discuss the news of the day.

He lives in Brockville, closely monitored under strict conditions from the hospital. He says he is no threat.

“I had a crazy compulsion,” Mr. Clifton says. “It was a … break with reality, but I think I’m getting back to where I was before I went insane, with the help of the medication, I guess.”

Mr. Clifton wants to debunk the misconception that not criminally responsible verdicts flood the streets with the criminally insane soon after their trials.

“It’s been a very slow, gradual process,” he said. “They’ve been very cautious. I have not shown any violence since my index offence, but every review board I have, they mention I’m a threat to society or something.”

Those found not criminally responsible are managed by review boards – independent tribunals made up of at least five people, including one psychiatrist.

Each year, people in most NCR cases go before their province’s review board, which can order that they remain in hospital, with varying levels of privileges, release them on a conditional discharge or order an absolute discharge.

Absolute discharges are granted only when the board finds the person is not a “significant threat” to public safety.

Few NCR cases get an absolute discharge at the first hearing, according to a government-commissioned study of review boards in Canada between 1992 and 2004. About 35 per cent of people in NCR cases spend more than 10 years in the system, the study found.

Mr. Clifton is one of them. At his last hearing, the review board noted his significant progress, but still kept him on a tight leash. He is under a detention order, but allowed to live outside the hospital in an apartment.

He doesn’t have “sufficient insight” to recognize early symptoms of deterioration, the board found.

The review board system lets NCR people into the community – once they’re deemed ready – for short periods under close supervision to see how well they cope. If they do well, they can be granted more privileges at subsequent hearings, step by step. If they don’t, the review board pulls the reins of supervision a little tighter.

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