Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Crime, time and closed minds She faced same public outrage then as Li does now

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'So convince me.'

This week I came across that challenge, and those parting words in a letter to the editor dated April 26, 1992. The challenge, and the words, still echo 20 years later.

Back then, the writer wanted to be convinced that Donna Trueman, the first person judged not criminally responsible for murder under what was then a new Canadian law, could be released under the supervision of her parents and not be a danger to the public.

The Trueman case, like the notoriously gruesome Vince Li Greyhound bus slaying of fellow passenger Tim McLean, is horrifically unforgettable. In October 1991, believing her four-year-old son Skylar had been possessed by Adolf Hitler, Donna Trueman drove a broom handle through the little boy's brain. Five months later, after being medicated back to reality and coaxed out of a suicidal state, a judge, guided by the new law, found her not criminally responsible.

Initially, Trueman was released into her parents' watchful care until the province's fledgling Criminal Review Board could look at the case. Two months later, in May 1992, Free Press city editor Paul Samyn, who was then the paper's law courts reporter, scored an enlightening interview with Trueman.

"I can remember everything that happened that night," Trueman said. "And the only way that I can see it is that it wasn't me. That's the way I look at it, because that's the only way I can look at it."

It was the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled detaining the criminally insane indefinitely was unconstitutional, that prompted Section 16 of the Criminal Code to be rewritten and allowed Trueman's conditional release to make legal history.

"That law was made for people like me," Trueman said back then of the amendment. "I'd never been mentally ill, never had a mental illness problem. And then all of a sudden this happens."

Still, as Samyn reported, even Trueman struggled at first to understand why she had been released.

"What went through my mind was how could they do that? How could he let me go after what I'd done? And yet I hadn't done anything. It's like being another person. Another person did that, not me. I feel guilty all the time, and yet I shouldn't. But I do."

Twenty years ago, the public reaction to Trueman's release was much like her own.

Much like the reaction now of a majority of Manitobans to the mere thought of Vince Li ever being allowed to leave Selkirk Mental Health Centre, where he has been essentially incarcerated for four years.

People couldn't understand it in 1992, and they still can't in 2012.

But there was another element to the reaction to Trueman's release that is similar to the prospect of Li's eventual release.

Public outrage.

Even otherwise open-minded individuals remain as unconvinced about Li being safely released as that letter-writer was about Trueman.

Which brings me to a different letter to the editor. It was written this week and forwarded to me, because it was from a woman who initially watched over and helped Donna Trueman with her transition into the community while enrolled in a vocational rehabilitation program.

The writer's name is Darlene Dreilich, and she recalled how Trueman, whom she discreetly referred to with a pseudonym, was treated.

"The mental-health system was very proactive in closely monitoring her and supporting her in the community," Dreilich wrote. "I know as well that she was quite grateful of the support and close followup that she received and continues to receive to ensure that she does not experience psychosis that caused her horrific act."

Dreilich had an update on Trueman, who is now 52. She met and married a man in the same program and eventually resumed care of her older daughter.

Last summer, Dreilich chanced to meet Trueman and her husband while they were camping with their grandchildren.

"I felt so comfortable... that I invited them to my home, but they could not make it," Dreilich wrote.

Back when Samyn spoke with the young Donna Trueman, she confessed something about how she felt about the mentally ill prior to the onset of her own psychosis.

"It's kind of funny, because I never was the kind of person that could be around people who were mentally disordered in any way. It bothered me," she said.

By then, though, she had come to an understanding. "There is nothing to be afraid of."

I doubt that either she, I, or anyone else will convince many people of that. After all, even after the Supreme Court ruling, there are those who believe the likes of Donna Trueman and Vince Li should be never be allowed to leave a locked psychiatric facility. But now, with that "convince-me" letter from 1992 letter answered, I'm left to wonder.

What if, 20 years ago, Donna Trueman had been sentenced to life instead of being allowed to have one? Would that make you feel better today?

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 14, 2012 B1

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