Sunday, July 3, 2022

Desmond Inquiry hears closing submissions

  • April 20 2022
  • By Helen Murphy    

PORT HAWKESBURY – The Desmond Fatality Inquiry is hearing closing submissions at the courthouse in Port Hawkesbury on Tuesday and Wednesday this week. On Tuesday morning, inquiry lead counsel Allen Murray made his closing remarks, to be followed by other lawyers representing inquiry participants.

Murray called the shootings of Jan. 3, 2017, in Upper Big Tracadie a “tragedy of unspeakable proportions that resulted in the loss of an entire family.” On that date, Lionel Desmond, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, shot and killed his wife Shanna, their 10-year-old daughter Aaliyah, and his mother, Brenda, before taking his life.

In the case of Aaliyah, “It was the loss of a child; a life's potential unrealized,” Murray said. “In Shanna Desmond, it was the loss of a loving mother and wife. In Brenda Desmond, the loss of a caring and protective grandmother.

“And, in Lionel Desmond, it was the loss of a husband, a son and a brother.”

Murray said Desmond “lost his way,” describing his actions as “the product of a damaged psyche and a tortured soul. He committed acts that are impossible to understand, to explain and really to comprehend. There are few words that properly capture the magnitude of the loss, the sheer horror of the events, and the pain suffered by those left behind.”

Desmond’s journey to Jan. 3, 2017, “was long and complex,” said Murray. “It is a story of missed opportunities. It is a story of information that was siloed and went unshared. It is a story of many caring professionals who wanted to help, but ultimately could not. It is the story of the damage that can be inflicted by war on the soul of a man. It is a story of a regulatory scheme that allows the acquisition of firearms for those who can safely use them, but which also attempts to protect society from those who cannot. And, ultimately, it is a story that involves violence in a family – a reality that is sadly all too common.”

Murray noted that the fatality inquiry’s job is not to lay blame or point fingers, “rather it is to understand it is to learn. It is to look backward with the benefit of hindsight and see what might have been different so that it can be different in the future.”

In addition to determining the facts around the deaths on that day, the inquiry is mandated to look at related issues, including mental health, domestic violence and firearms acquisition.

Mental health

Murray said, “The depth and complexity of Lionel Desmond's mental health challenges cannot be overstated.” He said Desmond needed “consistent structured and comprehensive mental health services, if he were to maintain any measure of stability and be able to function in his daily life.”

The inquiry has heard that those services were often not available to him. Desmond had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a major depressive disorder in 2011, following his military service in Afghanistan.

Murray outlined the mental health treatments Desmond received, according to inquiry witnesses. “Between 2011 and the summer of 2016, he received treatment in the Canadian Armed Forces. After his release in New Brunswick, [this was] at the operational stress injury clinic, and ultimately at St. Ann's Hospital in Quebec, which provided the most intensive structured and multidisciplinary treatment. Despite these various periods of intense treatment, his symptoms persisted.”

At St. Ann’s, Murray said “the level of engagement was comprehensive and continuous.” He noted that the discharge summary from that hospital “enumerated his many ongoing needs, including for a neuropsychological assessment and the need for assistance in his daily functioning, which may have been achieved with the assignment of a clinical care manager. These recommendations were designed to ‘ensure his continuity of care and the community,’” he said in quoting from the discharge summary.

“To say there was a gap in his treatment upon his discharge from St. Ann’s and his relocation to Guysborough, Nova Scotia, area would be an understatement.” Murray said Desmond “came to Nova Scotia with no services or treatment plan in place. Nothing was arranged for ongoing psychological counseling, medication compliance monitoring, social supports, or neuropsychological testing.”

The inquiry also heard about the unique needs of the African Nova Scotian community in navigating the healthcare system and seeking mental healthcare services from four witnesses representing the Health Association of African Canadians. They spoke about a lack of culturally specific mental health and domestic violence services in Nova Scotia, and an inability to access informed and culturally specific health resources and culturally competent care.

These witnesses “pointed to an overall mistrust of the healthcare system in the Black community,” he said. “They made a number of recommendations, some of which I will repeat here: The Nova Scotia Department of Health and Wellness and the Nova Scotia Health Authority should partner with appropriate community organizations to provide more comprehensive virtual care to rural African Nova Scotian communities. The Nova Scotia department of health and wellness and the Nova Scotia Health Authority should take steps to recruit Black and diverse mental health providers to provide culturally informed and responsive care with an emphasis on training in the areas of psychosocial services, occupational stress and general mental health and addictions. And the Nova Scotia Department of Health and Wellness and the Nova Scotia Health Authority should recruit and provide educational scholarships for Black registered nurses and nurse practitioners.”

Domestic violence

Lionel Desmond’s PTSD “was only part of his complex clinical and personal presentation,” said Murray. “While those who dealt with him and treated him understood his PTSD diagnosis, they did not always see or understand that his family life was deteriorating and was becoming dangerous. Lionel Desmond harboured an increasing suspicion of and, at times, resentment toward his wife. As he struggled with his symptoms and the lack of direction in his life, Shanna Desmond was embarking on a new career as a registered nurse. She was becoming exhausted dealing with his mood swings and outbursts and the couple appeared to be nearing a separation.”

Murray noted that the inquiry had heard evidence from Dr. Peter Jaffe, “one of the country's preeminent experts on the area of domestic violence.” In the report he prepared for the inquiry, Dr. Jaffe said the tragedy seemed “entirely predictable and preventable with hindsight,” Murray shared.

“Although it may have been difficult to predict exactly when and how these events would unfold, Corporal Desmond and his family seemed on a clear path for a horrific tragedy based on all information reviewed by the inquiry,” Murray quoted Dr. Jaffe saying in his report.

According to Dr. Jaffe, of the 41 risk factors associated with domestic homicide used by the Ontario Domestic Violence Death Review Committee, Lionel Desmond presented with 20. “Among them are some of the risk factors seen with most frequency and domestic homicides,” said Murray. “They included a history of domestic violence, a pending separation, the perpetrator suffering from depression and prior threats by the perpetrator to commit suicide.”

Murray said, “one of the most troubling aspects of the history of Lionel Desmond's treatment was the lack of understanding that domestic violence was very much present in the Desmond relationship and that it posed a real and objectively measurable increased risk of harm. Dr. Jaffe noted in his report that frontline professionals may have lacked awareness or training about domestic violence warning signs.”

Firearms

The inquiry looked at whether Lionel Desmond should have been able to acquire and retain a firearm. “Your Honour, we learned that Lionel Desmond purchased a…semi-automatic rifle, a non-restricted firearm, on the afternoon of Jan. 3, 2017,” said Murray. “He did so lawfully. The vendor that sold him that gun acted appropriately on that day, given what he knew. Lionel Desmond had a valid possession and acquisition licence to purchase the firearm and ammunition. He had applied for that licence and followed the necessary and applicable procedures required of him…And yet, he clearly should not have had a gun.

“The grave state of his mental health and the deterioration of his marriage and homelife created a situation where he was a danger to himself and to others with a gun. So, the question remains, if all of the appropriate legal steps in acquiring the licence were taken, what could have been done differently? What information might have led decision makers who were tasked with deciding whether to issue Lionel Desmond a firearms licence to take a different course?

Murray reviewed testimony related to Desmond’s licence to acquire and possess a firearm and made several recommendations, including that “the Chief Firearms Office should, in appropriate cases, place certain licences under review, and seek additional medical information if necessary to ensure that applicants who have been granted licences are continuing to meet eligibility requirements and are maintaining good mental health.”

He also recommended that “the Office of the Chief Firearms Officer should receive additional funding to facilitate additional and ongoing checks of the mental health status of licensees.”

Murray concluded his remarks with a final recommendation: “to ensure that the recommendations from this inquiry are not lost with the passage of time, the government should create a formal implementation committee made up of senior government officials from different departments to oversee the implementation of the inquiry’s recommendations. This committee should have a minimum five-year mandate and involve liaison with appropriate federal government departments.”

Later this year, Judge Warren Zimmer is expected to release a written report with his findings and recommendations, as required by the inquiry mandate.