A Nanaimo man who remained silent, staring at the wall or out the window while representing himself on a charge of first-degree murder has been found fit to stand trial.
Robert James Iverson was arrested on June 30, 2010, and charged with the first-degree murder of Cheryl Sim, 53, whose body was found in a shopping cart behind a downtown Nanaimo hotel a day earlier.
Iverson, who has a long history with the criminal- justice system and an extensive medical history of head injuries and liver failure, chose to represent himself in a judge-alone trial that began in Nanaimo in September 2013.
In a decision posted online this week, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Robert Punnett described the case, which is now scheduled to continue on June 23, as unique and unusual. When the trial got underway last fall, Iverson did not participate in the proceedings.
“He refused to communicate with the court, standing mute and either staring at the court or out the window,” Punnett noted.
Iverson did look at witnesses entering and leaving the courtroom. He also accepted copies of the exhibits, but dropped them onto his bench seat in the prisoner’s box without looking at them.
“On at least one occasion, when asked to respond by the court, he turned his back on the court and remained standing, facing the back wall of the court room,” said Punnett.
Iverson’s behaviour raised the question of whether he was fit to stand trial. Iverson had been in segregation for a year. Although he spoke to some guards, Iverson had refused to be assessed by the psychologists who were supposed to meet with him every 30 days.
Iverson had also lost weight and, in contrast to his well-groomed appearance at his preliminary inquiry, he now appeared unkempt.
On Oct. 7, 2013, Punnett ordered Iverson to undergo a five-day fitness assessment. However, Iverson refused to co-operate and the psychiatrist could not conclude he was unfit to stand trial.
The trial continued. On Oct. 16, 2013, Punnett appointed defence lawyer Albert King to represent Iverson during a 60-day fitness assessment at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital.
Again, Iverson refused to talk to the forensic psychiatrist, Dr. LeeAnne Meldrum, or to participate in any laboratory or psychological testing. In the end, Meldrum was unable to provide a conclusive opinion on Iverson’s fitness to stand trial.
The Crown suggested continuing the trial, recognizing that Iverson might need to be assessed later.
In his submissions on behalf of Iverson, King said it’s clear from Meldrum’s evidence that Iverson was not faking mental illness.
“He is one very sick man,” said King.
He argued that the criminal-justice system had nothing to lose by finding Iverson unfit. A finding of unfitness is not an acquittal. He could later be found fit and the trial could resume.
“There is no societal purpose in sending a man to prison for life, if on a very balanced view of his mental capacity, he is not, in any way, shape or form participating in the process,” King told Iverson’s fitness hearing.
However, Punnett noted that during the trial, Iverson co-operated with the sheriffs and followed their directions, but ignored lawyers in the courtroom. He found Iverson socialized with other patients and talked to nursing staff at Forensic Psychiatric Hospital, but refused to talk to Meldrum.
He also noted that Iverson responded to a sheriff’s offer of water, but ignored the same offer from the lawyer appointed by the court to assist him at trial.
There was no evidence to indicate Iverson is not aware of what he is charged with, Punnett said. He also appears to understand what is occurring in the courtroom.
“I note that it is only after he decided to represent himself that he became unresponsive,” said Punnett. “He may well have decided to defend himself by remaining mute, leaving the Crown to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Iverson’s silence is more likely wilful than a product of mental disorder, said Punnett, who concluded — “although not without significant reservations” — that Iverson is fit to stand trial.
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