Mentally ill man's death at OCDC was homicide, lawyer says

The lawyer for the family of an Ottawa man who took his life while in jail is calling for his death to be ruled a homicide rather than a suicide or accidental death.   

Justin St. Amour, 31, hanged himself in his cell at the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC) on Nov. 30, 2016.

He died eight days later.

Before his death, St. Amour had been diagnosed with borderline personalty disorder. He was also addicted to opioids, experienced psychosis and prior to his arrest was sleeping in a cemetery. 

A provincial inquest — mandatory when someone dies while in custody — is now looking into how and why St. Amour died in an attempt to prevent similar deaths in the future.   

Paul Champ, the lawyer representing the St. Amour family, called on the four-person jury Wednesday to arrive at a verdict of homicide, while also acknowledging it would be a rare conclusion at an inquest.

Unlike in the criminal context, a verdict of homicide at an inquest is a factual finding and does not attach blame to anyone.

Champ told the jury to accept the evidence of corrections officer Abdul Henriksen, who said he told both a fellow officer and the on-duty sergeant that St. Amour had made a rope out of his bed sheet and was threatening suicide.

The lawyer said those two men — Scott McKenzie and Sebastien Coté, respectively — understood what they'd been told, even though they denied Henriksen ever mentioned it.

supplied by family

'Extreme risk of imminent death'

Given the history of similar suicide attempts at OCDC, McKenzie and Reid should have told Henriksen to keep constant watch on St. Amour, Champ said.

They also should have told him to push an emergency button when St. Amour refused to hand over the ligature, Champ said.

The more experienced officers "made a purposeful decision not to save that life," he said.

"It was clear that there was an extreme risk of imminent death," said Champ.

He speculated the two officers did not react to news of the ligature because they suffered from "fatigue" after St. Amour's many suicide threats during previous incarcerations. 

While acknowledging that St. Amour could be a difficult and challenging inmate, Champ said he was also a much-loved son and brother.  

His death, Champ said, was preventable.  

"I'm thankful for people who work in those facilities, but that does not mean we turn away when their inaction causes a death," he said. "We name it homicide."

Going it alone

None of the other parties at the inquest, however, have supported a finding of homicide.

Lawyers for the doctors who treated St. Amour, the coroner's counsel, counsel for Ontario's solicitor general, and advocacy group Mothers Offering Mutual Support (MOMS) have either taken no position or opposed a homicide finding outright.

We do not believe the evidence supports that the action of one human being killing another human being. - Hera Evans

"Suicide is the the verdict that most closely reflects the evidence," said Tom Schneider, lawyer to the coroner.

"In order to be homicide, there must be an awareness that the person wanted to die and a decision was made not to assist. And I don't think that was the case here" 

Hera Evans, the lawyer for the ministry of the solicitor general — which is responsible for OCDC — went even further.

McKenzie and Coté were "clear, consistent and straightforward" when they denied being told that St. Amour had a rope or made a ligature, Evans said.

"We do not believe the evidence supports that the action of one human being killing another human being," Evans said.

"They did not kill Mr. St. Amour. They responded to the information they knew at the time" 

The jury received 23 recommendations drafted by all the parties at the inquest, although the ministry's lawyers are not supporting five of them.

Its deliberations began Wednesday.

Need help? Here are some mental health resources in the National Capital Region:

  • Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553).
  • Ottawa Suicide Prevention: 613-238-3311