Judge questions differing psychiatric assessments of woman charged with assaults

Rosie Mullaley rmullaley@thetelegram.com
Published on February 7, 2014
Alexandria Harnum, who is suspected of committing several assaults, is escorted out of provincial court in St. John’s Friday. — Photo by Rosie Gillingham/The Telegram

A St. John’s judge wants to get to the bottom of the psychiatric condition of a woman suspected in several violent offences.

In provincial court in St. John’s today, Judge Lois Skanes expressed concern about conflicting reports the court has received from two psychiatrists who have recently assessed Alexandria Harnum on separate occasions.

Skanes said both Dr. Jasbir Gill and Dr. Sheila Lynch have deemed Harnum mentally fit to stand trial.

However, she said Gill doesn’t believe Harnum is mentally ill, while Lynch has diagnosed her as being bipolar and suffering from psychosis.

Gill came to the conclusion following a seven-day evaluation at the Waterford Hospital this past week.

Lynch’s determination was made following a week-long evaluation in October 2013.

Harnum is expected to plead guilty to several charges later this month. However, before Skanes imposes sentence, she wants to hear more evidence from the psychiatrists.

“There’s so much confusion,” Skanes said. “She’s a very challenging case. I’d like to feel confident … that she’s (mentally) fit …

“I need to know what steps can be taken to ensure she’s as mentally competent as she can be and if there is any way we can maintain that.”

Crown prosecutor Sheldon Steeves objected to that, pointing out that Harnum was sent back to the Newfoundland and Labrador Correctional Centre for Women in Clarenville because she was such a danger to other patients at the Waterford.

Skanes noted that Harnum, who was placed in foster care at age 3, has had psychiatric issues from the time she was 9.

“An ordinary person is not dealing with the same issues,” the judge said.

That’s why Skanes is questioning the doctors and why she said it’s important to sort out Harnum’s psychiatric state before determining her punishment.

“It’s disturbing. One doctor says she’s bipolar and has psychosis. This report says she’s a bad girl,” the judge said, holding up the latest lengthy report.

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“We need to ensure she’s not a safety issue, rather than just throw our hands in the air.”

Harnum — who came to court wearing a hospital gown and wrapped in a white blanket — spoke out several times.

“I’m just trying to add clarity to my thoughts,” she said, rocking back and forth as she sat in the prisoner’s seat.

“I feel like a vegetable. I wish I could just straighten up.”

Skanes asked Harnum if she was  taking medication.

“I don’t want nothing,” she said. “I ain’t taking them.”

At one point during proceedings, Harnum said, “I wish I understood what’s going on.”

“I wish you understood, too, Alex,” Skanes said sympathetically.

Harnum has been in and out of the Waterford Hospital since last spring and has been charged with offences that reportedly happened inside and outside the hospital.

The 22-year-old is facing a number of assault charges, including one against a sheriff’s officer on Jan. 28, when she ripped out a chunk of the officer’s hair, leaving a bald patch.

She was also charged following an incident at the Waterford Hospital, where she was said to have attacked a male nurse in May of last year.

Harnum also reportedly assaulted a woman at Lottie’s bar on George Street last month.

She faces a number of charges of breaching court orders, as well.

Steeves, and Harnum’s lawyer, Derek Hogan, agreed to bring the case back to court Feb. 20 for a sentencing hearing.

The judge hopes at least one of the psychiatrists will be available to testify.


Twitter: @TelyCourt