Vincent Li walked into a Winnipeg courtroom Monday afternoon in shackles, solemn and silent and trying everything he could to be small.
Unfortunately for Li -- the man who gained infamy in 2008 by beheading a passenger on a bus between Winnipeg and Edmonton -- there is nowhere for a man with a story like that to hide.
In some ways, it is hard to believe it is almost six years since Li took the life of Tim McLean. An undiagnosed schizophrenic, Li was found not criminally responsible (NCR) for his actions, and sent to the Selkirk Mental Health Centre to begin the path back to stability.
Given the gory nature of McLean's death, the prospect of Li's reintegration into society was purely theoretical. He was a lost man with a very sick mind, and it was always possible he would never leave the hospital.
On Monday, at a hearing before the Criminal Code Review Board, we learned his ultimate release from hospital is not just possible, it's probable.
Li has been a model prisoner. He has not had a single negative interaction with other patients or staff in Selkirk. He has enjoyed unescorted walks on the hospital grounds and escorted trips to Selkirk and Winnipeg. All without incident.
As a result of these promising developments, psychiatrists want Li to be moved to a non-lock-secure section of the hospital. It has also been recommended he be allowed 30-minute unescorted passes to Selkirk, and visits to Winnipeg with minimal supervision.
Ultimately, these steps are being taken to pave the way for Li to be reintegrated into the community. Obviously, this is no small matter for the public in general, or McLean's family and friends in particular.
Some of McLean's family have been vocal about the need to keep Li in custody indefinitely. The federal government even introduced a new law, motivated in part by McLean's death, that would hold those found NCR longer in hospital, with fewer privileges.
So, who are we to believe? The family of the victim and politicians, who believe the mentally ill can never be released because they can never control their impulses? Or, the physicians, who believe that willing patients and the right medication can eliminate future risk?
This is one of those watershed debates for our community. It is a moment where rational needs to triumph over irrational, and fact needs to dominate intuition. It's a moment in time when we need to acknowledge and understand the important semantic point raised by the term "not criminally responsible."
Now, there will be those of us who do not aspire to compassion, or mercy, or enlightenment. In fact, human nature is such that we are never forced to embrace enlightenment about anything. If we really don't want to.
Still, some important facts associated with Li's condition must be acknowledged in any debate about his potential release.
Li was an undiagnosed schizophrenic. At the depth of his paranoia, Li suffered from a profound psychosis, a break from reality, where he heard voices and experienced hallucinations.
Psychiatrists who have overseen his treatment say since submitting to treatment and medication, he no longer has delusions of any kind. More importantly, Li does not now, nor has he ever suffered from an anti-social or personality disorder, substance abuse or shown any violent tendencies before his tragic meeting with McLean.
Li was, prior to this awful incident, the perfect example of an ordinary, educated, high-functioning adult who was ravaged by mental illness. He is the person we should be helping, not punishing. The person we should be nursing back to health.
Interestingly, we heard on Monday that when it comes to the final decision on whether to release someone found NCR, the review board can consider factors other than the mental state of the patient. It is, for example, also concerned about whether Li could be harmed by a member of the public who will simply not tolerate his re-integration.
That is the ultimate tragic irony in this already tragic story.
Li is doing his part to control his mental illness. We know thanks to science that at the time he killed McLean, he did not have the mental capacity to understand his actions. There are no issues of will or motivation or personal responsibility. He had a disease that took away his self-control.
There are few certainties when it comes to mental illness. However, it seems now the only thing that is certain to keep Li incarcerated indefinitely is our insistence on ignoring the indisputable facts of this case.
Vince Li is getting better. With a bit of luck, and more than a modicum of enlightenment, maybe society in general could do the same.