Should Lionel Desmond have been able to legally possess a gun? Inquiry hears differing views

By Helen Murphy    
January 29 2020

GUYSBOROUGH – The first evidence of the Desmond Fatality Inquiry was heard as sessions resumed at the Guysborough Municipal Building on Monday, Jan. 27. Opening statements by lawyers representing various parties with standing at the inquiry gave a preview of testimony to come, and the first witness, N.S.’s Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Matthew Bowes, highlighted the pressing questions that he felt needed to be answered by the inquiry.

High on that list was how and why Lionel Desmond – a veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan and was well-documented as suffering from PTSD -- came to legally possess a firearm.

When asked what systemic failures he thought may have contributed to the tragedy in Upper Big Tracadie on Jan. 3, 2017, Bowes pointed to this issue.

“The fact that the system placed a gun in this man’s hands, for me, is problematic,” said Bowes. “This man, at least in my inexpert eye, had plenty of reasons why a reasonable person would take the gun from his hands, and yet he had it. I understand personal liberty and all that stuff, but nonetheless, I think that most reasonable people would (agree) that someone who is acutely mentally ill should not have access to a gun.”

In his opening remarks earlier on Monday, lawyer Stewart Hayne, representing several doctors including Fredericton family doctor Paul Smith, addressed why Smith signed off on his patient being permitted to possess a firearm.

Hayne said Smith last saw Desmond on February 23, 2016. At that time, he said, Desmond shared that he had stopped taking medicinal marijuana, prior to attending a clinic for PTSD treatment at St. Ann's Hospital in Quebec. Smith had prescribed medicinal marijuana to Desmond in 2015 on a trial basis. Desmond had later reported to Smith that the marijuana helped reduce his symptoms of PTSD, including anxiety and depression.

“Mr. Desmond also came with a form for medical assessment for a firearms licence,” Hayne said of the visit. “That form contained information about an incident involving Mr. and Mrs. Desmond whereby the RCMP had been called due to concerns about Mr. Desmond's behavior. Dr. Smith also had personal knowledge of an event reported by Shanna Desmond in November of 2015. Dr. Smith will say that Mr. Desmond explained the events as simply instances of marital discord,” Hayne said of Smith’s upcoming testimony at the inquiry.

“With his knowledge of Mr. Desmond from the office visits and from the support groups and with Mr. Desmond's explanation, Dr. Smith felt comfortable completing the form indicating that he had no concerns that Mr. Desmond posed a safety risk to himself or others with an appropriate firearms licence,” said Hayne.

“Since learning of the (Desmond tragedy), Dr. Smith has had feelings of sadness that his assessment may have enabled Mr. Desmond to purchase and obtain a gun. However, Dr. Smith will say that he knew Mr. Desmond to be a forthright, reasonable non-violent and stable individual and that when he knew him, he had no concerns for Mr. Desmond.”

The Inquiry’s mandate is to determine the circumstances of the tragedy in which Lionel Desmond shot and killed his wife Shanna, their 10-year-old daughter Aaliyah, and his mother Brenda before taking his own life in a home in Upper Big Tracadie on Jan. 3, 2017, and issues that may have contributed to the shootings. Those issues may include whether Desmond and his family had access to the appropriate mental health and domestic violence intervention services prior to the events leading up to their deaths.


Treatment at St. Martha’s Hospital

Much detail was provided on Desmond’s visits to St. Martha’s Hospital in Antigonish. In the aftermath of the shooting deaths three years ago, there was much speculation that Desmond had been turned away from St. Martha’s without treatment. But that runs counter to the statements of Hayne, who is also counsel for Dr. Ian Slayter, a psychiatrist at St. Martha’s.

Hayne said Lionel and Shanna Desmond came together to the emergency department at St. Martha's October 24, 2016, and were seen by Slayter. At that visit, the psychiatrist noted that Lionel Desmond's main complaint was his inability to sleep due to nightmares.

“Dr. Slayter reported that Mr. Desmond felt depressed, that he had frequent outbursts of anger and aggression towards objects,” said Hayne. “He also noted that Mr. Desmond was sometimes paranoid regarding his wife Shanna…Dr. Slater will say that the Desmonds disclosed a history of aggression where Mr. Desmond would pound the table.”

Hayne said Slayter “will say that Shanna Desmond said she was not afraid of Mr. Desmond and that she was more central and vocal during this assessment; Mr. Desmond was more reserved and quiet and that he was generally pleasant, nice and reasonable.”

Slayter “adjusted and prescribed certain psychiatric medications” to help Desmond with his symptoms. The doctor assessed Desmond’s suicide risk as low, said Hayne.

Hayne said Slater next saw Desmond for a consultation on December 2, 2016.

“This time, in an office consultation environment by himself, Dr. Slater will say the consultation took between one-and-a-half and two hours, which is in accordance with his standard practice,” said Hayne. “Dr. Slater will say that Mr. Desmond presented as a pleasant, depressed man with a demeanor that was calm and appropriate. His rapport was normal…His thought process was coherent and rational.”

Desmond was awaiting assistance from the Operational Stress Injury (OSI) Clinic, which provides mental health services to veterans and others, including RCMP members, who have an OSI.

The psychiatrist was to see Mr. Desmond again to “ensure some continuity of care” while he waited for OSI assistance, said Hayne. A follow-up appointment was set for December 21, 2016. But Desmond did not show up.

“Dr. Slayter did not take any action as Mr. Desmond, like any competent patient, was entitled not to attend the appointment and also given that his suicide risk would be assessed as low.”

Hayne also represents Dr. Justin Clark, an emergency medicine physician who saw Desmond when he presented to the emergency department at St. Martha's on January 1, 2017 – two days before the tragedy.

Clark’s assessment “was that Mr. Desmond had no acute distress, no suicidal ideation and no homicidal ideation,” said Hayne. “Dr. Clarke recorded that Mr. Desmond’s speech was normal and that there was no evidence of psychosis.”

The doctor called the psychiatrist on call, Dr. Faisal Rahman, for consultation. The psychiatrist happened to be in the hospital, said Hayne, and came down to see Desmond.

In his upcoming testimony, “Dr. Rahman will say that Dr. Clark called him to advise that he intended to take a bed in the mental health ward for a social admission for a veteran,” said Hayne.

Rahman met with Desmond for 30 to 40 minutes, said Hayne, and “found Mr. Desmond to be pleasant, forthcoming, engaging, respectful and a proud father.”

The psychiatrist found that Desmond “was in no acute distress,” said Hayne. “He had no suicidal ideation, no homicidal ideation, had no evidence of psychosis -- all as recorded by Dr. Clark.”

As well, Rahman noted that “Mr. Desmond had a verbal altercation with his wife, who apparently asked him to leave the premises until he felt more under control,” said Hayne.

The psychiatrist charted that the couple had an argument the night before, when their vehicle went into a ditch. “He recorded that both continued to escalate until he punched/hit a table, at which point she threatened him about calling RCMP,” said Hayne. “He left the home voluntarily. Dr. Rahman also recorded that Mr. Desmond denied abusing Mrs. Desmond physically.”

According to the lawyer, Rahman will say that “Mr. Desmond expressed remorse that he had startled his daughter when he hit the table. Mr. Desmond spoke fondly of his daughter.”

The doctor noted that Desmond wanted to stay in the hospital overnight “to reflect and regroup” and had an appointment with his therapist through Veterans Affairs the next day. Rahman noted that Desmond “denies any suicidal or homicidal ideation, (his) thought process is coherent, logical, goal-directed.”

Hayne said Rahman did not believe that Desmond required hospitalization, but offered him a bed on the mental health ward “for social purposes.”

Desmond then disclosed that his wife was a recent nursing graduate, said Hayne, and that she had recently started as a nurse on the mental health ward. Desmond said he did not want to stay there.

“Dr. Rahman will say that he believed that Mr. Desmond…was concerned for Shanna that she would be the subject of gossip if Mr. Desmond stayed on the mental health ward overnight.”

The psychiatrist coordinated with Clark for Desmond to spend the night in the emergency department observation area.

“Dr. Rahman stayed in the emergency department until Mr. Desmond was settled in bed for the night,” said Hayne, and came to see him again in the morning, before Desmond left the hospital.

The psychiatrist “will say that Mr. Desmond did not require voluntary hospitalization and that he did not require involuntary hospitalization,” said Hayne.

“Dr. Rahman recalls offering Mr. Desmond to stay longer if he wished, but Mr. Desmond left the hospital that morning according to his expressed wishes.”

In an earlier opening statement lawyer Rory Rogers, counsel for the N.S. Health Authority, including St. Martha’s Hospital, reviewed the sequence of Desmond’s visits to St. Martha’s. He noted that Desmond returned to the hospital in the early afternoon of Jan. 3 and booked a follow-up appointment for Jan. 18.


Holding inquiry in Guysborough

In his opening statement, lawyer Adam Rodgers, counsel for Lionel Desmond’s sister Cassandra in her role as personal representative of her brother, spoke about the location of the Fatality Inquiry.

“The decision to hold the inquiry here in Guysborough, far removed from easy accessibility for most Nova Scotians, and certainly for the mainstream media, has benefits and challenges. While this location is convenient for the Desmond family and the community, there is also some risk that it may minimize the public spotlight which this inquiry deserves.

“Live-streaming and the posting of evidence and availability of transcripts will help ensure that what we do here will reach those with an interest and the public generally.”

Rodgers also talked about the appropriateness of the location, including that council chambers itself, where the sessions take place, was up until recently used for provincial court hearings.

“Many parties will have driven here to Guysborough along Route 16, which takes you directly past the site of the tragic events that took place on January 3rd, 2017,” he said. “You look out the window and up the hill, we will see the elementary and high school attended by Cpl. Desmond, where he was a well-liked and respected student athlete.”

Rodgers also noted the nearby Cenotaph and local Remembrance Day services, where Desmond and his many relatives who also served in the Canadian Forces are remembered.


The question of race

Rodgers’ opening remarks also addressed the question of race. “An unfortunate tension can arise for those who have decided to serve the country in such an honourable and dedicated manner, and yet who experience systemic and individual racism from within the very society to which they have dedicated themselves.

“Cpl. Desmond experienced racism in his time in the military and those experiences deserve consideration in the course of this inquiry,” he said. “It is important that we examine the extent to which race may have factored into enrolment, deployment and treatment decisions for him.

“Given the history of military service in his family, Cpl. Desmond was an eager recruit. How eager might future recruits be?” asked Rodgers. “The recommendations from this inquiry will certainly be important for military recruitment.

“If we as a country do not find better ways to treat soldiers with PTSD, post-concussion syndrome and other combat injuries, (if) we do not find better ways to reintegrate soldiers and their families after combat experiences, then recruitment into the Armed Forces is going to become increasingly more difficult.”

Speaking to media after Monday’s session wrapped up, Cassandra Desmond said she’s happy that this stage of the inquiry is finally underway. “It’s been a long-time coming,” she said. “Finally we’re here…And I believe that nothing but good is going to come out of this.”


(With files from Katherine Murphy)


Desmond tragedy timeline

Numerous dates presented in testimony at the Desmond Inquiry this week help build a timeline related to the tragedy, including:

July 2, 2015

Dr. Paul Smith, a Fredericton-based family doctor, prescribed medicinal marijuana to Desmond on a trial basis.

February 23, 2016

The last time Dr. Paul Smith saw Lionel Desmond, the veteran came with a form for medical assessment for a firearms licence.

October 24, 2016

Lionel and Shanna Desmond came together to the emergency department at St. Martha's Hospital in Antigonish, and were seen by Dr. Ian Slayter, a psychiatrist.

December 2, 2016

Dr. Slayter saw Lionel Desmond for a consultation.

December 21, 2016

Lionel Desmond failed to show up for a follow-up appointment with Dr. Slayter.

January 1, 2017

Dr. Justin Clark, an emergency medicine physician, saw Lionel Desmond when he presented to the emergency department at St. Martha's. Desmond also saw psychiatrist Dr. Faisel Rahman and stayed the night in the emergency department.

January 2, 2017

Lionel Desmond left St. Martha’s in the morning “according to his expressed wishes.”

January 3, 2017

Lionel Desmond returned to St. Martha’s in the afternoon and booked a follow-up appointment on January 18, 2017.

Later that day, Lionel Desmond shot and killed his wife Shanna, their 10-year-old daughter Aaliyah, and his mother Brenda before taking his own life in a home in Upper Big Tracadie.

Police were called to the Desmond house shortly after 6 p.m.

January 27, 2020

First evidence heard in the Desmond Fatality Inquiry in Guysborough.