Yukon News

ANALYSIS: Michael Nehass case reveals systemic failures in Yukon’s justice system

Pierre Chauvin Friday February 3, 2017

Joel Krahn/Yukon News


Michael Nehass spent five years in the Whitehorse Correctional Centre.

The government tried.

The courts tried.

The psychiatrists and the doctors voiced their concerns.

Everyone said they tried. But in the end, a man gripped by psychosis, convinced he is the victim of a powerful conspiracy linking judges, police forces and secret CIA programs, sat in a Yukon jail for five years waiting for his case to be resolved.

The case of Michael Nehass, 34, raises many questions about gaps and failures in the justice system.

Nehass was arrested in 2011 on charges of assault with a weapon and forcible confinement, stemming from a violent incident with a woman in Watson Lake.

He’s still in custody, now in an Ontario forensic mental health facility, waiting to hear whether his five-year legal odyssey will go back to square one — via the declaration of a mistrial — or whether he’ll be forced to undergo psychiatric treatment, which would allow the case to continue.

The fundamental problem is simple: Nehass is psychotic and has been for some time, according to the testimony of numerous experts over the years. He needs anti-psychotic medication.

A round of treatment as short as 60 days could put him back in touch with reality.

But after five years in custody and similar findings from four different psychiatrists, the question remains: why hasn’t that happened?

First attempt

Judge Michael Cozens first found Nehass unfit to stand trial in 2014 for the same reasons he was found unfit in late January this year. Nehass is a smart man who understands how the courts work, but the constant intrusion of delusional beliefs in his mind makes it impossible for him to understand what is happening, let alone to conduct a meaningful defence, experts said.

Cozens found him mentally unfit for trial, sending him to the Yukon Review Board. The board’s task was to confirm that Nehass was indeed unfit, and order treatment so the court proceedings could resume.

That’s when things started to derail.

The review board unanimously found Nehass was fit to stand trial because he understood how the courts work. They relied on the same evidence judge Cozens used — a report by psychiatrist Shabreham Lohrasbe that detailed Nehass’s understanding of the court system but also noted his severe delusions.

The board also relied on Nehass’s behaviour during that hearing to find him fit. Since that finding, two more psychiatrists have voiced their concerns and a Supreme Court judge has also found him unfit for trial.

So did the review board err? How can a judge and the board, which is a panel of psychiatrists and psychologists, come to drastically opposite conclusions while relying on similar evidence?

In October 2014, while Nehass faced charges related to violent incidents at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre, the Crown prosecutor told the court that Cozens’ ruling still stood, despite the YRB decision.

But a month later, Nehass was allowed to enter a guilty plea on some of those charges. While judge Donald Luther’s decision mentioned Nehass’s behaviour during the proceedings, it didn’t touch on the fitness issue.

Surprise and second attempt

The board’s decision caught justice officials by surprise, testified Tricia Ratel, the justice department’s director of correctional services, on Jan. 25.

During his time at WCC, Nehass was extremely difficult to manage, and prone to violent outbursts that led to the repeated destruction of his cell in the secure living unit.

By 2013, jail officials were fully aware of Nehass’s needs for treatment and were concerned. A lawyer for the Department of Justice went to court in 2014 hoping to speed up the fitness assessment.

When that effort fell apart, WCC officials turned to a civil procedure to get Nehass out of the jail and into a treatment facility. But that effort failed too, and by Ratel’s own admission, justice officials aren’t sure why.

In court, Ratel was crystal clear: the WCC isn’t the right place for Nehass.

A psychiatrist from Outside confirmed previous reports about Nehass’s mental state. But the doctor became “uncomfortable” with signing papers to have Nehass committed, Ratel said. Later, lawyers for the government told jail officials the assessment was too old to be used in the civil procedure.

Last-ditch attempt

By November 2016, Nehass had fired four lawyers in a row, been convicted of assault with a weapon, briefly acted as his own lawyer, filed a 57-page constitutional challenge, and left dozens of messages on the chief prosecutor’s voicemail detailing various conspiracies. The Crown prosecutor seized on the messages as evidence of Nehass’s unfitness. Based on expert testimony, Justice Scott Brooker found Nehass unfit.

But now the court is in a legal void, because the Criminal Code only provides for treatment orders before a verdict is reached. Brooker has to decide whether to create a new precedent by ordering a 60-day treatment program for Nehass after the verdict, or to order a mistrial.

A mistrial would send Nehass back to square one, through the fitness assessment process and the YRB.

On the other hand, that treatment could reduce Nehass’s psychotic symptoms to the point that he could take part in court proceedings.

But what happens if he is brought back to the Yukon to appear in court and held at the WCC without treatment? What if he becomes psychotic again? Will the courts be stuck in a never-ending revolving door of treatments in Ontario and hearings in the Yukon?

“There was a lack of will, resources, and a lack of guidelines,” Nehass’s current lawyer, Anick Morrow, told the court Jan. 26 while arguing for a mistrial. “It’s not about assigning blame but (looking at) the system breakdown across so many issues.”

In the process, people in the justice system became desensitized and simply tried to “make do,” Morrow said.

In 2007, the News reported the story of a pale, 23-year-old inmate in the segregation unit of the old WCC.

The inmate was in “desperate need of treatment” for substance abuse and violent behaviour, said the judge who sentenced him.

That inmate’s name was Michael Nehass.

Contact Pierre Chauvin at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


mike wrote:
1:43pm Monday February 6, 2017

How much more energy and resources does this guy get? Four lawyers, four psychiatrists and he’s still the poor little poster child, except he destroys things and injures people but that’s not his fault of course.
The review board found him fit after a judge didn’t? What’s wrong with the doctors that they’re ‘uncomfortable’ bringing their findings to ccourt? What’s wrong with all the lawyers that they didn’t get him committed?
We live in a territory full of wonderful things but healthcare isn’t one of them. That’s why patients are routinely sent Outside.
But here we’ve wasted more resources than we have on a violent scary guy who loves to take drugs, just not medication for his brand of crazy which he’s had for decades.
These doctors could have been helping lots of yukoners but wasted their time on him without even helping him. The legal beagles listened to him rant about conspiracies but didn’t send him out. Our hospital can’t manage him.
Now it sounds like this very dangerous guy is going to get off for those charges against that poor woman he assaulted. I wonder how she feels about that? Maybe she should have been given even a half of the services offered to this guy, but victims don’t count do they?

Confined wrote:
12:21pm Monday February 6, 2017

Theres no way I would ever want to see this guy out on the streets again around kids, women or anyone else.  I don’t understand why everyone is trying to be so politically correct about this issue.  He is more animal than human at this point and deserves to be confined to a cell for the rest of his life.  There is no rehabilitating someone like this.  Why waste money, time, and resources on a lost cause?  What has he ever contributed to society other than violence?  Do you think the woman he assaulted and confined in Watson Lake would like to see him out again? We can’t just shoot him or let him freeze to death so we might as well let him live in a hole until he dies, that is more than he deserves.  Let him represent himself in a trial, totally blow it, and put him on the dangerous offenders list so that no one in society ever has to see him again.

How Long wrote:
11:30am Sunday February 5, 2017

How long are we going to keep hearing about this guy?  Maybe, just maybe, if you left him alone and gave him the help he needed and stopped writing about him every 2 weeks just MAYBE he could have a chance to rehabilitate but you just can’t help yourselves can you??  how’s that for systemic?

Five Years? wrote:
5:55pm Saturday February 4, 2017

I thought this next Generation prision was going to be the be all and all? Wasn’t the new regime brought in because of their expertise? Isn’t it a bit disconcerting that the Director of Corrections plain out states staff aren’t trained to deal with mental health clientele? Why is that? If indeed this statement is true then does not raise questions of what type of daily interaction is happening between staff and inmates. The 6 week COBT program and any subsequent follow up training should address; addictions FN culture, elder support, literacy, life skills et al. But I guess when you have “trainers” having a background in forestry and son’s of former ADM’s delivering said programs change isn’t going to happen is it? Oh well, the administration, or what is left of it is making a lot of money doing nothing to evoke change. As for the untrained staff…..where is the leadership to equip people with the proper skill set to do their job effectively? Where is the accountability? Oh that’s right, ADM fired, Superintendent back in BC, 2 Deputy Superintendent’s moved into positions they could not do and then one “retired” the other removed to another job. What a complete and utter failure…..

ralpH wrote:
8:55am Saturday February 4, 2017

@ChesireCat lay off the Friday night posts My mind is still spinnning. Even Watson would not be able to desiefer that!! Not one fact that helps this conversation and Thomas Brewer 86ing Him is a bit over the top. This is still Canada

CheshireCat wrote:
9:42pm Friday February 3, 2017

This reveals a guy that won’t fit the mold, part of the consequences of the psychological colonization of first Nations, and, as a side effect of social media and increased content exposure, it’s continual colonization of those nations. What “reveals systemic failure in Yukon ‘s justice system” is the fact that illegal drugs from South America and central Asia can be found in the territory’s most isolated communities. That there apparently exists an infrastructure able enough to bypass both the intelligent services of the US and Canada. That political conscious humans in tribes called gangs/etc are able to maneuver around antiquated laws and capitalize off the psychological weaknesses of their fellow species, that those same tribes can reach the heights of society. It is sickening. Really brings out the misanthrope in one, doesn’t it? Especially after that mentally poisoning watching House of Cards. Maybe, secretly, that IBM computer Watson is running things, and is steering our species to a different, less crude, way of living. Or maybe he’s not, and the justice system will continue to go after the low hanging fruit of criminals. Or maybe, this is the best possible way to live as a society, and that’s just the way she goes. #whatmadnessisthis

Lee wrote:
4:48pm Friday February 3, 2017

The government did not try. The mental health dept in Yukon is a joke.

ralpH wrote:
4:29pm Friday February 3, 2017

@joe agree with everything You said, but in this case I do beleive that there is no solution for Him. The unfortunate thing is He will be institutionalized the rest of His life resources should be expended to find him a permanent place.

Joe wrote:
3:58pm Friday February 3, 2017

It is obvious that the Mental Health Act needs to be updated.  Currently if a person has mental issues they can refuse treatment and there is nothing anyone can do about it unless the person injures someone or himself.  The secure psychiatric wing at the hospital will not accept a person who is violent or charged with a criminal offence, so the only option is jail.  The jail is not equipped to treat someone who is psychotic so the situation becomes a vicious circle and nothing is achieved.  The Mental health Act has to be revised so that a judge can order treatment for such individuals and not use excuses such as mental health act, privacy rights, patient rights bla bla bla to avoid treatment.

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