How Jeremy Skibicki's 'unusual' defence compares to other serial killer cases

A police photograph taken of Jeremy Skibicki in custody, following his May 2022 arrest. He has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in the killings of four women. (Manitoba Court of King's Bench - image credit)
A police photograph taken of Jeremy Skibicki in custody, following his May 2022 arrest. He has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in the killings of four women. (Manitoba Court of King's Bench - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Admitted Winnipeg serial killer Jeremy Skibicki's plan to argue he's not criminally responsible in the deaths of four women due to a mental disorder strikes several experts as "unusual" — including the forensic psychiatrist who assessed some of Canada's most notorious killers.

Dr. John Bradford has evaluated murderers including Paul Bernardo, Robert Pickton and Russell Williams, all of whom were convicted in serial sexually motivated killings.

Bernardo, along with then-wife Karla Homolka, sexually assaulted and killed three teenage girls in Ontario, including Homolka's sister. Pickton, who recently died in hospital, was convicted in 2007 of killing six sex workers and suspected of killing many more. Williams, a disgraced former Canadian Forces colonel, killed two women, sexually assaulted two others and broke into the homes of dozens of Ontario women and girls.

Bradford said it would be very difficult for someone to be found not criminally responsible, or NCR, in those types of killings. In all three of those cases, he found the accused weren't eligible, in part because of how much planning and organization went into their crimes.

"They have to find a victim. They have to persuade them and abduct them and, you know, they have to go to various means to do that. And then usually afterwards there's some disposition of the body in a way to avoid being arrested or being found guilty," Bradford said from Nova Scotia.

"All of that goes against … I'm generalizing, [but] when people are psychotic, they tend to be disorganized in what they do."

While not criminally responsible cases can involve multiple homicides or a series of crimes over a longer period of time, the two don't typically go together in the type of "brutal violence over a course of several weeks or months" that Skibicki has admitted to, said Anita Szigeti, a longtime Toronto mental health litigator who has represented not criminally responsible clients for nearly 30 years.

"I have, you know, hundreds of clients a year. And I don't think I've seen anyone come into the system with this pattern of offending since I've been doing the work," said Szigeti, an author of the Canadian Anthology on Mental Health and the Law.

Submitted by Winnipeg Police Service and Darryl Contois
Submitted by Winnipeg Police Service and Darryl Contois

Though Skibicki's bid to argue he's not criminally responsible is "quite unorthodox," it's less surprising given the evidence, including a videotaped confession to the killings during his police interview, said Brandon Trask, an assistant professor who teaches mental health and criminal law at the University of Manitoba.

"It would have been extremely challenging for the defence to argue, based on that evidence, that Mr. Skibicki should be found not guilty," said Trask. "One argument that was still remaining for them to make was in relation to the pursuit of this finding of NCR."

Skibicki's defence will present its case for why a not criminally responsible finding when the trial resumes Monday. Court has heard the Crown and defence each had their own experts assess the accused's mental state.

Prosecutors have alleged that over two months in 2022, Skibicki, 37, preyed on vulnerable women at Winnipeg homeless shelters before taking them back to his apartment, killing them and engaging in "vile sexual acts with their bodies." Court has heard Skibicki was seen on surveillance video throwing out the remains of the women, some of whom he had dismembered, in garbage bins near his apartment building.

Skibicki has pleaded not guilty to four counts of first-degree murder in connection with the killings of Morgan Harris, 39, Marcedes Myran, 26, and Rebecca Contois, 24 — all of whom were from First Nations in Manitoba — as well as the death of an as-yet unidentified woman who has been given the name Mashkode Bizhiki'ikwe, or Buffalo Woman, by community leaders. Police have said they believe she was also Indigenous and in her 20s.

'Insanity' plea used in past serial killer cases

Though the legal term no longer exists today, there was a time serial killers in Canada were found not guilty by "reason of insanity," including Peter Woodcock (later known as David Krueger), who killed three young children in Toronto in the 1950s, and Russell Johnson (also known as the Bedroom Strangler) who killed seven women and sexually assaulted several others in southwestern Ontario in the 1970s.

But since that regime was replaced by the current system after a 1991 Supreme Court decision, people who fit that same profile likely wouldn't be found not criminally responsible, said Toronto lawyer Szigeti — in part because they're often diagnosed with psychopathy or severe antisocial personality disorder, meaning they lack empathy or remorse.

That would be at odds with the two criteria that now need to be met for a not criminally responsible finding: that a person was suffering from a mental disorder at the time of the offence, and that the disorder left them unable to appreciate "the nature and quality" of what they were doing or that it was wrong.

"This cohort who may be described colloquially as serial killers, there's no question that they understood and had the capacity to understand the nature of their actions — either that they were sexually assaulting usually women or children, or killing human beings," Szigeti said.

"You have an acute awareness that your actions are wrong, but your lack of empathy that's linked to your psychopathy makes you not care."

James Culleton
James Culleton

Forensic psychiatrist Bradford said he's evaluated both Krueger and Johnson, who he noted were originally assessed during a different era and had no major mental illnesses. If he had been involved in Krueger's case, for example — where the verdict was handed down because of psychopathy — Bradford said he wouldn't have supported that finding.

Diagnosed with personality disorder, PTSD: Skibicki

Until Skibicki's defence presents its case, it won't be clear what kind of mental disorder they're arguing made their client not criminally responsible.

But during his 2022 police interview, where he confessed to the four killings he's now on trial for, Skibicki told officers he'd been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, and had struggled with addictions.

WATCH | Court hears video evidence of Jeremy Skibicki's confession to Winnipeg police:

Szigeti said while not criminally responsible cases often involve psychotic disorders like schizophrenia, the law in theory could allow any mental disorder to be used in a not criminally responsible defence.

For example, lawyers for Alek Minassian argued because of autism spectrum disorder, he should be found not criminally responsible for driving down a busy Toronto sidewalk with a van and killing 10 people in 2018. While the judge in that case found Minassian was criminally responsible for the attack, she also found autism meets the criteria to be considered a mental disorder.

However, proving that a mental disorder made a person unable to grasp what they were doing or that it was wrong can be hard with a condition like borderline personality disorder, Bradford said. While it can cause "micro episodes" of psychosis, that's likely not enough to prove a person is not criminally responsible.

Though post-traumatic stress disorder can also cause "uncontrolled rage attacks," Bradford said that's more likely to reduce a charge — like dropping from first- to second-degree murder — than absolve someone of criminal responsibility.

James Culleton
James Culleton

Substance abuse can worsen major mental disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, but it's also unlikely on its own to lead to a not criminally responsible finding, he said.

While people may talk about the "battle of the experts" in a contested case like Skibicki's, Bradford said forensic psychiatrists actually often agree on a diagnosis. Where they may differ is on how much that mental disorder affected the mind of the accused at the time of the offence.

Those expert opinions are important in a case like Skibicki's, but they don't automatically determine the outcome, the U of M's Trask said — they're just part of the evidence the judge considers.

"At the end of the day, what matters is what can be proven. And so that's why this process exists," said Trask, who was previously a prosecutor in Nova Scotia and appeared regularly before their Criminal Code Review Board, which oversees cases once a person is found not criminally responsible.

"That's why we see this unfold in the manner that we're going to see it unfold."

Skibicki's judge-only trial before Court of King's Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal, which began hearing evidence on May 8, resumes Monday.

Support is available for anyone affected by these reports and the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous people. Immediate emotional assistance and crisis support are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through a national hotline at 1-844-413-6649.

You can also access, through the government of Canada, health support services such as mental health counselling, community-based support and cultural services, and some travel costs to see elders and traditional healers. Family members seeking information about a missing or murdered loved one can access Family Information Liaison Units.