The trial of 32-year-old Luka Magnotta started Monday, September 29, in a packed Montreal courtroom in Canada. It is expected to last six to eight weeks, with testimony from 60 witnesses and depositions from people as far away as France and Germany.
Superior Court Justice Guy Cournoyer quickly announced that the defendant had admitted to the gruesome killing and dismembering of 33-year-old Lin Jun who was a Chinese university student at the time of the killing and to other facts connected to the crime.
The slaying took place in May 2012, but Magnotta had fled Canada before being arrested in Germany and extradited in June 2012. He was arrested in a Berlin Internet cafe, after going through France.
Even if he admitted committing offences that include indignities to a body and harassing the Prime minister of Canada, Magnotta still pleaded not guilty. His defense lawyer declared that mental illness was to blame and that his client needed in-hospital psychiatric care rather than a long prison term. He intends to present medical files and expert witnesses to demonstrate his client’s long history of mental illness.
“Whether Mr Magnotta is exempt from criminal responsibility will be the matter for your deliberations,” the attorney, Luc Leclair, said in opening remarks to the jury.
Prosecutor Louis Bouthillier is not buying these excuses and called on the jury not to be swayed into believing that Magnotta must be insane in order to have committed such horrific crimes.
This was not the act of a lunatic, Bouthillier insisted, but rather a killing that was “planned and deliberate,” planned at least six months in advance.
Magnotta is accused of using an ice pick to fatally stab Jun Lin, before sexually abusing and dismembering his corpse, and then posting a video of the whole saga online.
A few days after the killing, Montreal police discovered the victim’s torso in a suitcase by the trash outside an apartment building along a busy highway. Lin’s severed hands and feet were sent in the mail to federal political parties in Ottawa; one of the packages was addressed to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and to two schools in Vancouver. The head was found in a Montreal park months later.
Now, Magnotta sits in a glass enclosure in the courtroom where Lin’s father has to face him from one of the few seats in the gallery. Jun Lin’s parents have been totally destroyed by the murder of their son, especially by the gruesome nature of the murder and the publication of the deed online, and they rightfully saw him at first, as the devil incarnate.
Even after being labeled a paranoid schizophrenic, Magnotta was declared fit to stand trial after a hearing following two psychiatric assessments. He is now medicated and obviously appearing more normal. He has been ‘officially’ suffering from mental illness since 2005.
At the time, he was prescribed anti-psychotic medications, as well as drugs to reduce anxiety and insomnia. He attended psychotherapy and health education sessions but like most patients, did not take his medication religiously.
Without the drugs, “he would be prone to relapse of his symptoms, which include paranoia, auditory hallucinations, fear of the unknown, etc.,” a psychiatrist told an Ontario court in June 2005 after he was arrested for fraud.
No more than a month before Lin’s death, he had also been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder which causes emotional instability and more often than not, behavioral problems.
Finding jurors for this trial has not been a bed of roses. Never before, have I heard so many excuses coming out of the mouth of potential jurors to avoid jury duty, except in cases of fear of retaliation from bikers or dangerous criminals. Who could blame them? The judge had warned jurors during jury selection earlier this month that they would be confronted with evidence that was likely to be “shocking and disturbing.” And that is an understatement.
Luka Magnotta was born Eric Clinton Newman but used several aliases such as Vladimir Romanov or Angel before changing officially his name to Magnotta in 2006. As if he was constantly on a quest for reinvention.
He lied about his background, his education and almost everything else. Luka is the perfect example of a sick young man who fell through the cracks. His behavior was strange and he managed to do some modeling and odd jobs but his troubled personality would always take over and sink his ambitions.
He had gay lovers to pay for his expenses and managed to keep a few friends before it started literally raining cats and dogs in his life.
As he was becoming more and more disenfranchised and isolated, Magnotta turned to the Internet. It became his virtual world where he could rule everything and invent himself a past, a present and a future. He was putting it all out there: photos, comments and delirium. He bragged about dating Karla Homolka and managed to become well known in the underbelly of the net.
His small and more than modest apartment, soon became the theater of the grotesque and the absurd. He started by posting anonymous videos of kittens he would drown in the bathtub. He would start by petting and cuddling them before finally immersing them in the water.
Kittens were the first step in his descent to madness and it did not go unnoticed by animal activists who desperately tried to get the police interested in his shady activities. There was an underground search going on to find his location. They worked for months on end to unmask him. He would hide his face but there were some recognizable aspects in his videos for the amateur sleuths. Some of them were quite motivated because they were sure that he would graduate to other crimes, which he did. But he was not caught on time even if he advertised the fact that human victims were to come.
In his final masterpiece, Magnotta filmed himself slitting Lin’s throat, decapitating him, slicing his arms and legs, and this time a dog became his co-star as he fed it flesh from the dead body. He also had sex with the limbless corpse. It sure guaranteed him front page news. He instantly joined the ranks of infamous celebrity killers.
Dogs were also part of some of his videos and a small black dog was found dead with body parts from his victim.
Even if the authorities tried to remove the video of Lin online, it still exists in the nooks and crannies of the Internet. We all know that once a cyber-bomb has been dropped, it is never possible to retrieve all the pieces of the carnage.
What is even more tragic is that during the course of his trial, Magnotta’s actions will victimize even more people. The jury and the family of Jun Lin will be exposed to heart wrenching evidence and the murder video. The lawyers, the judge, cops and mental health specialists will also have to relive this event.
You don’t escape this kind of horror without residual scars. One of the first police officer to show up at the scene of a bus beheading in Winnipeg, Manitoba, killed himself last July, He suffered from PTSD for six years after the incident and decided he could not go on living in a constant state of anxiety. The young victim in the bus had been decapitated and partly devoured by a schizophrenic man who was found not criminally responsible for his actions.
John Bradford, the psychiatrist who had to review the videos of the murders filmed by colonel Russell Williams during the commission of his crimes, suffered also from PTSD in the aftermath. He admitted resorting to alcohol and having contemplated suicide. He refused to testify in the trial of Magnotta to prevent another relapse.
The jurors are the most vulnerable group of all because they have no training and no realistic expectations of things to come when they are called in for jury duty. They often risk being traumatized and suffering from PTSD. Research was done on sixty cases in Great Britain and it revealed the dangers jury are exposed to mentally and emotionally. A trauma can implant in the brain not only if you are the victim of a crime, but also if you were associated in any shape or form with the tragedy.
Jurors can sometimes get psychotherapy after the trial and the Great Britain researchers from Leicester University who did the study on this subject recommend getting help during the legal process and not only afterwards.
Thankfully and at the family’s request, the judge has imposed a publication ban preventing any of the photo and video exhibits showing the body of young Mr. Lin from ever leaving the courtroom. Lin Diran, the father of Jun Lin, has pledged to be present throughout the trial and has seats reserved for him in the courtroom. The judge has also made sure to have a small room with a television monitor reserved for the father so he can watch proceedings without being in the presence of the man who killed his son.
“The court has been very sensitive to the needs of the parents. They’ve done more than they needed to do in a gentle and humane way,” said the family lawyer, Dan Urbas, with the father standing by his side.”
Imagine the horror when on the first day of trial, the Crown started showing jurors more than 150 photographs presented and narrated by the crime scene photographer: Knives, an angle grinder commonly used to cut metal, a wardrobe’s worth of men’s clothing, a shower curtain, rubber gloves, the body of a small black dog disposed of along with parts of Lin’s body, pieces of arms and legs, a bloodstained T-shirt, a torso packed into a grey suitcase on wheels.
Welcome to my nightmare.
Jun Lin’s mother and sister stayed in China for the trial. I remember how distraught Mrs. Lin was when she first came to Canada after learning of her son’s demise. It is now up to Mr. Lin to represent his son and he is wearing his pain like a mask. He stands proudly with his volunteer translator by his side, but I wonder how long he will last.
“Every time the mother discusses it, it’s like it happened yesterday,” their lawyer said. “If they’re going to be suffering and going to be unhappy, they might as well be at home. There’s no point. The father is here, he wants his questions answered.”
Several volunteer translators are doing their best to give Mr. Lin some normalcy, taking him to dinner and putting him in touch with Chinese community members who share his language and interest. “We had a nice lunch and it seemed to put him at ease,” his translator said. “But let’s face it, this will never get better for him.”
I realize that a trial is the legal way to decide the fate of Luka Magnotta, but I am hoping for some change in the future for cases of severe mental illness. Jurors are not equipped to decide if a defendant should be incarcerated or given psychiatric treatment. Mental health experts testify for both sides but the decision should not fall on the shoulders of ordinary citizens.
There should be a board of experts from both sides deliberating and rendering the final judgment. The judge would obviously participate in the process. It would spare jurors, the family, the law enforcement officers and all the experts from testifying in a courtroom. It is already such a task to have been investigating this gruesome case. Why put them through the legal grinder again? And to what end? It would get rid of the pesky beast called media.
The Crown says Luka Magnotta premeditated his crime because he talked about it six months ahead of time. Well, I can tell you that in my neighborhood, where a lot of deinstitutionalized patients ‘reside’ homeless and not fancy free, I have received death threats and heard many promises of things to come. But they are sick so what they say or plan to do does not constitute intent. One of my homeless regulars tells me every day he will wash my car. Is it intent? Because he is never going to do it. Another one says that I stole his vacuum cleaner. Not that it won’t happen one day, but in my opinion, it cannot be considered as premeditation.
Some like Magnotta, are more ‘normal’ in the sense that they can appear as if their life is mundane. But if you scratch a little under the surface, in this case on his websites, you clearly see the madness within.
He should by no means be given a pat on the back, but let’s call a spade a spade because his disease spoke much louder than his words. His father who will testify on his behalf also suffers from schizophrenia. Jun Lin’s wonderful mother who decided to bury her son in Montréal instead of China because he loved the city so much, declared at his funeral that she had started to develop sympathy for her son’s alleged killer after undergoing a spiritual transformation. If she can understand and be forgiving, it is our duty to follow her lead.
I am hoping for a system where Magnotta will be put away and treated. Until then, it is going to rain cats and dogs for quite a while in our courtrooms.
After deliberating for 8 long days, a Montreal jury found Luka Magnotta guilty of first-degree murder, as well as the other four charges he faced: committing an indignity to a human body, publishing obscene material, criminally harassing Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other members of Parliament, and mailing obscene and indecent material.
Magnotta filed an appeal, but dropped it on February 18, 2015. He told the judge via video conference that he has reflected on the consequences of not appealing his conviction. Magnotta is ready to meet Jun’s father to talk about the murder after he expressed interest to find out more about “what happened that night”. The meeting would be held in the spirit of “truth and reconciliation”.
Click here to read The Making of Luka Magnotta