A Toronto lawyer who violently attacked a family with a baseball bat and yelled racist slurs at them has been given a conditional discharge after his defence said his behaviour was caused by smoking too much weed.
Mark Phillips, 37, the heir of former Toronto mayor Nathan Phillips, pleaded guilty to assault causing harm Tuesday. Phillips was charged in December with aggravated assault, and three counts of assault with a weapon, after he was caught on camera wielding a baseball bat in a St. Thomas, Ontario strip mall and screaming “Terrorist. Terrorist. We have a French terrorist here," and "ISIS! ISIS!” at a family of three and their friend. Phillips hit one of the family members, Sergio Estepa, with the bat, cracking his rib. The video went viral.
The family is from Colombia and had been conversing in Spanish when Phillips began yelling at them to stop speaking French.
According to the Globe and Mail, Phillips’ lawyer Steven Skurka argued his client’s actions were the result of a weed-induced “psychosis.” The defence presented expert testimony from Peter Collins, a psychiatrist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, who said Phillips had smoked three or four joints that day prior to the attack, the Globe reports. Phillips’ parents also said he had gotten kicked out of the Air Canada Centre the same day for yelling about North Korea, and that he was paranoid about Muslims and Nazis.
“In my professional opinion, Mark Aaron Phillips suffered from a drug-induced psychosis in and around the time of the event that led to his arrest,” he said.
Lisa Defoe, the Crown in the case, accepted Phillips’ defence, noting that while Phillip’s actions seemed like a hate crime, “it’s important for the Crown not to react emotionally.”
She asked for Phillips to be given a suspended sentence, which would have resulted a criminal record but no jail time. However, Ontario Court Justice John Skowronski decided on a conditional discharge with three years of probation, which means Phillips will not have a criminal record.
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Describing the attack as an “aberration,” Skowronski reportedly told the court, “this is something that took place because of a mental illness.”
Phillips, who is a personal injury lawyer, said "I'm horrified and embarrassed and I feel ashamed."
Ottawa-based defence lawyer Michael Spratt told VICE with cannabis about to be legalized these kinds of defences need to be closely examined. While he said it seems the Crown acted reasonably in this case, factors like the privilege of the accused have to be taken into account.
“Not only does he come from a place of privilege, not only was he a lawyer from a good background, but he had the resources to produce the report and mental health evaluations,” he said. “Otherwise, clearly term of imprisonment and a lengthy term of imprisonment would be appropriate for a case like this.”
It’s not clear if the Crown reviewed the defence’s expert testimony on Phillips’ weed psychosis or simply accepted it on its face, but Spratt said there should be consistency in the approach when it comes to perpetrators of different backgrounds.
Spratt said the facts of this case are troubling because the attack appeared to clearly be racially motivated. He said the court needs to be able to differentiate between when deep-seated hatred is the motivation versus potential mental health issues.
In his victim impact statement, Estepa told the court how it was traumatizing for his son to be told “You don’t belong here.”
Human rights advocate Amira Elghawaby said the decision raises major concerns over how hate crimes are treated in Canada. Hate crimes in Canada are underreported and are rarely prosecuted.
“Even where a perpetrator is found to have suffered mental illness or temporary distress, will courts essentially overlook the racist or discriminatory undertones of their act?” Elghawaby told VICE.
She said these types of violent assaults erode a person’s sense of safety and belonging.
“A case like this leaves those of us who belong to particular communities feeling even more vulnerable. This case means that if we are targeted for our racial, ethnic, or religious identities, the justice system may not even weigh the impact, nor ensure the perpetrator faces meaningful consequences that matches the seriousness of what they have done.”
The decision could also potentially be used as a political football for those who don’t support cannabis legalization, but public health researcher Rebecca Haines-Saah told VICE that would be misguided.
She said while substance-induced psychosis does happen to some heavy users or people with limited cannabis experience who take a high dose of THC, the research on it is thin.
“The argument around ‘increasing THC content is linked to psychosis’ is actually a reason to legalize, so that people will be able to avoid high THC products. We don't have the ability for the most part in an illicit market,” Haines-Saah said.
She also said people who are mentally ill should not be stigmatized as violent and aggressive. The reality is people who are mentally ill are more likely to be targets of violence.
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