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Montreal - The Turcotte jury got it wrong

6 juillet 2011

par Frema Engel, travailleuse sociale et auteure

For months we have read horrific details of the killings of the Turcotte children by their father, Guy. Since Turcotte admitted to stabbing his two children, Olivier, 5, and Anne-Sophie 3, the trial was about why he did it. On Tuesday, a jury found him not criminally responsible by virtue of his mental state at the time of the killings.

The jury has given us a terrible verdict. Turcotte should have been found guilty of murder.

This was a case that highlighted issues related to depression, family violence and social values. The defence argued that Turcotte killed his children because he was depressed. I want to refute that assertion. My perspective is not from a legal viewpoint but as a social worker with 30 years of experience counselling severely depressed people, often following a separation or divorce, and working in the fields of family, workplace and personal-relationship violence.

I understand the debilitating effects of depression and I know that it is not unusual for severely depressed people to think about killing themselves. They are focused on ending their own suffering and they are not preoccupied with the impact of their suicide on their family members. Nor, I should add, are they preoccupied about killing others, unless bipolar illness is involved. In this case, that was not alleged to have been a factor.

Physical symptoms of depression include a loss of energy and extreme fatigue. It is therefore hard to understand how someone with severe depression could have found the energy to stab his son 27 times and his daughter 19 times.

It is far more likely that Turcotte’s energy was fuelled by rage and the desire for revenge.

His activities leading up to and after the murders were puzzling. He was consumed with the need to put his affairs in order, and to ensure his ex-wife did not have access to money. He even refused to pay for his children’s funerals. These actions do not point to someone who was in a deep depression alone. Rather, they point to an extreme disconnect with feelings of love for his children. They also point to a self-absorbed individual who also acted in spite.

Turcotte was portrayed by his defence lawyer as a loving, devoted father who could not bear to lose his family and who was so overwhelmed by the infidelity of his ex-wife that he “lost it.”

In a moment of desperation, we were led to believe, he killed his children and tried to kill himself.

This argument is not valid. Turcotte would have had ongoing access to his children. More of an issue than the children no longer being in his life, I believe, was his having lost control of his wife. How egocentric it was of him to think that the children would be better off dead than being shared with their mother.

Killing the children indicated a desire to punish his ex-wife for her ending their relationship. This is what conjugal violence is all about. Family-violence experts with whom I have talked about this case view the killing of young children by their fathers at a time of separation and divorce as an act of rage and revenge. Often the perpetrator, as with Turcotte, does not exhibit previous violent behaviour.

This case also brings into question society’s values. It highlights a gradual erosion of personal responsibility for one’s behaviour and the ease with which arguments can be introduced into a murder trial to remove that responsibility. As reported in The Gazette’s July 2 story headlined “Judge tells jury they must agree on motive,” the defence claimed “it was an act of twisted compassion, an extended suicide to spare his children from a fatherless life.” This perversion of language attempts to reduce Turcotte’s personal responsibility for his children’s murders.

“Extended suicide” is an oxymoron. To kill yourself is suicide. To kill others is murder. To try to put the killing of other people under the umbrella of suicide is shocking ; the children in this case did not have a choice of living or dying. This choice of words is dangerous ; it leads us down a path that would destroy society’s core values, and attacks a key part of our moral code : Thou shalt not kill.

“Twisted compassion” was another phrase used to justify the killings. There was nothing compassionate about causing the deaths of these two young, healthy children, nor in the extremely violent way it was carried out. They would have suffered excruciating pain in their final moments.

Turcotte, in my view, and in the view of colleagues with whom I have spoken, became so enraged and bent on revenge that he gave himself permission to kill. In doing so, he jumped the barrier of permissible behaviour.

The basis of law in our civilized society is that everyone is responsible for and will be judged by their actions. Killing in vengeance or to punish is inexcusable. If a person is not psychotic, then he is answerable for his actions. To say the contrary opens the door for impunity for murder.

As a society we need to be clear about how much we are responsible for our
actions, how much we value life and how we regard our children. These are
the core issues in this trial.

Our legal system reflects our social values and provides a glimpse into our
future. In this case, the jury has given us an unfortunate verdict that has
weakened our social fabric.


Frema Engel is a Montreal social worker who specializes in workplace-conflict resolution, bullying and violence prevention. She is a contributor to the Canadian Centre for Abuse Awareness’s online magazine

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© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette, July 6, 2011.

Frema Engel, travailleuse sociale et auteure

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