Canadians from Corner Brook to Kanata wrote to Justice Minister Peter MacKay earlier this year expressing outrage at a decision to allow Vince Li new liberties in Selkirk.
Documents released under access to information include letters and emails sent to MacKay in the month following the February decision by the Manitoba Review Board to grant Li unescorted passes into town as part of his gradual recovery from schizophrenia.
Li was found not criminally responsible for the gruesome killing of Tim McLean on board a Greyhound bus in 2008 in a case that made international headlines.
"This murder (sic) has no right to leave the institution ever! He is a danger to society!" wrote a Burlington, Ont., resident. "Please do your job and protect the innocent, hard-working Canadians that have put their faith in you."
"The justice system is getting to such a farce that it is almost laughable," wrote another. "Sick, sick, sick, is all I can say."
'It's a lot easier to talk about depression than it was 20 years ago. I know we haven't made nearly as much headway with schizophrenia'
None of the 20 letters MacKay received in March expressed the view of physicians, mental-health advocates and the courts that Li suffered from an undiagnosed brain condition that caused hallucinations, a profound break from reality and the inability to know right from wrong. Instead, the letters echoed many of the fears and misconceptions that still beset mental illness, said Chris Summerville, executive director of the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society.
Summerville said some stigma is on the wane, thanks particularly to public figures, such as Olympian Clara Hughes, who have gone public about their battles with depression.
"It's a lot easier to talk about depression than it was 20 years ago," said Summerville. "I know we haven't made nearly as much headway with schizophrenia."
Many who wrote to MacKay said Li knew what he was doing when he killed McLean and argued he ought to stand trial now that he has recovered enough to be granted unescorted passes out of the Selkirk Mental Health Centre.
"He was guilty of such a horrible crime there is no way he should be allowed out, or he should be charged with the murder he committed," wrote a Regina resident.
Other writers said if doctors and mental-health advocates are so sure Li will not reoffend, they should volunteer to live next door to Li once he's released.
Summerville said it's extremely rare for a schizophrenia sufferer to commit the horrific violence Li did. Recidivism rates for people declared not criminally responsible are remarkably low, far lower than for inmates in the correctional system.
Among NCRs who have committed violent offences, the rate of re-offence is between four and seven per cent, several Canadian studies have found.
During the review board hearing in late February, Li's doctors said Li has been a model patient, shown great insight into what triggered the Greyhound attack and knows the importance of taking his medications.
Release conditions typically demand those found not criminally responsible for violent acts report regularly to mental-health workers or get regular visits at home so any changes in behaviour can be spotted long before they slowly develop into psychosis.
Those who wrote to MacKay also questioned the rights of the mentally ill to avoid automatic or long-term detention, rights embedded in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and bolstered by several Supreme Court of Canada decisions.
"The pendulum of liberalism has swung too far," wrote an Ottawa man. "Not every violent criminal Canada should be 'saved.' "
"I find it totally appalling that Vince Li is now permitted to go on unescorted trips from his mental hospital," wrote a mother and grandmother from Corner Brook, NL. "I feel very strongly that he has no "right" to ever function unsupervised in our society again."
MacKay, who in March called Li's additional liberties "shocking" and "unsettling" replied to each of the letter-writers with a form letter of his own.
MacKay's reply touted his government's new bill, passed in April, which makes public safety a paramount consideration when review boards consider new freedoms for people found NCR.
The legislation also created a "high-risk accused" category that comes with tighter restrictions on people, such as a ban on unescorted passes from hospital.
MacKay also asked people to share their outrage with the Manitoba government because the review board's decision falls within provincial jurisdiction.
That echoes comments made by Manitoba's senior federal cabinet minister, Shelly Glover, in the days following the review board's decision.
Glover demanded Manitoba appeal the decision and criticized the provincial Crown attorney for failing to oppose Li's request for additional liberties.