ANDY ESPERSEN AGAINST SUNDAY STAR-TIMES
Case Number: 2625
Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2017
Verdict: Not Upheld
Publication: Sunday-Star Times
Andy Espersen complains that a story in the Sunday Star-Times headlined, "Christie Marceau’s family ‘devastated’ after killer granted supervised leave from ward”, was unfair to a person mentally ill, intruded on his privacy and discriminated against him on grounds of mental disability in a manner that was not in the public interest. The complaint is not upheld.
1.The newspaper reported that Christy Marceau’s killer, Akshay Chand, who had been confined to a secure mental health clinic since her death six years earlier, was granted supervised leave and had been seen in public places, including an Auckland library, a supermarket and a McDonalds. The story said the woman’s parents, now living overseas, were shocked to learn Chand was allowed out and worried that he might pose a threat to their family in Auckland.
2. It recorded that he had been found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity, having been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. While the Marceaus had been assured they would be notified if he was granted leave from the clinic, legally the district health board did not have to notify them so long as he was escorted. The woman’s father was quoted saying, “After everything we have been through this is another kick in the face. He is out there and people need to be extremely vigilant. I do believe he is extremely dangerous.”
3. Andy Espersen told the Press Council he is on a “schizophrenia awareness campaign”. He hopes to see a “180-degree about-turn in the way we and our fellow western democracies have looked at insanity over the last 50 years”. There was, he said, “no science as such about schizophrenia, our treatment of its sufferers must necessarily be based on ideology, philosophy and tradition.” Present treatment is “horribly cruel and uncharitable”. It had to be challenged by ethics, empathy and emotions.
4. The article in question displayed a disregard for a human being suffering a terrible illness and for his parents and friends. The writer was undoubtedly ignorant of insanity but that was no excuse. Mr Espersen looked to the Council to assess the ethical and moral aspects of news items like this.
5. The editor, Jonathan Milne, believed there was a legitimate public interest in the story. The case had exposed a number of weaknesses in the criminal justice system’s ability to deal with mentally ill people. Chand had been on bail when he killed Christy Marceau. His release from the Mason Clinic without the family being informed had exacerbated the pain and helplessness felt by her family
6. The family spoke out in the hope victims’ rights would be taken into account when mentally ill patients were allowed out. Their plea was not that mentally ill killers be locked away indefinitely but that victims, families and affected members of the public be alerted so they can take appropriate precautions. They felt Chand’s day release presented a risk to their family.
7. The editor said unpublished photos of Chand while he was out showed he was mingling with young members of the public with no sign of supervision. Chand had changed his appearance since the court case and the paper chose not to publish the photos of him but believed it was right to alert the family and the public that he was out.
8. The complainant expresses a high degree of certainty about the absence of danger presented by the mental illness involved in this case. He has not provided the Press Council with his credentials or authority for his information. The Council does not have the expertise to verify his views of the illness and its public safety implications and, more to the point, nor does the newspaper. It may be that needless anxiety is caused by the reporting of the supervised day release of a person known to have committed homicide and found legally insane, but if there is no cause for concern, it is for mental health authorities to explain why that is so.
9. In this case the newspaper sought comment from the Mason Clinic where Chand had been placed for custody and care. The acting clinical director said any form of leave required approval from the Ministry of Health and patients were escorted by qualified staff, but declined to comment on the specific case.
10. The director also said patients’ privacy prevented staff informing victims’ families of escorted leave and no such notice was required by the Victims’ Rights Act. This application of the Act was criticised in the story by a victims’ advocate and by the Labour Party’s justice spokesman, Andrew Little, since appointed Minister of Justice, who considered the failure to notify the family required an apology from the Director of Mental Health.
11. Clearly the Sunday Star-Times report covered legitimate issues of public interest to do with the state of the law governing supervised release, the safety of supervision and whether families of victims have a right to be informed. Under the Press Council principles, a legitimate public interest can justify intrusions on privacy and discrimination by reference to mental disability. The complaints on those grounds are not upheld.
12. Nor can we uphold the third ground of complaint, of unfairness to a sufferer of acute schizophrenia. If there was a lack of fairness or balance in this portrayal of the disease, it cannot be held against the newspaper which gave the Mason Clinic an opportunity to provide the sort of assurances the public needs.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, and Christina Tay.
Mark Stevens took no part in the consideration of this complaint.