“Requisite State of Mind” in Second-Degree Murder - Ashley Fouad
In the Manitoba case of R v Belyk (“Belyk”), the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench (“the MBQB”) had the task of analyzing whether Jordan Belyk was ‘intoxicated enough’ to negate the mens rea necessary for the crime of second-degree murder. The MBCA illustrated several important facts that are necessary to claim this level of intoxication in this decision. Ultimately, the MBCA decided that Belyk could not form the requisite mens rea and could not be charged with second-degree murder. Instead, he was found guilty of the lesser offence of manslaughter. The MBCA upheld the qualifications of legally relevant degrees of “mild” and “advanced” intoxication, as established in R v Daley (“Daley”). The focus here is to provide an analysis of the MBCA’s reasoning with regard to intoxication relating to the mens rea of second-degree murder.
A grisly murder fueled by intoxication and sleep deprivation
On October 3, 2017, Brittany Bung was horrifically stabbed and killed in Lac du Bonnet, Manitoba by Jordan Belyk. The issue at hand in Belyk was whether Mr. Belyk had the required state of mind (mens rea) for second-degree murder. Mr. Belyk met the first two elements of second-degree murder (discussed below), and this was not challenged by the defense. Mr. Belyk, however, argued that his impairment and intoxication raised a reasonable doubt as to the required state of mind for second-degree murder.
Ms. Bung and Mr. Belyk were both at the Lac du Bonnet Petro Canada. After a brief interaction, Mr. Belyk followed Ms. Bung and entered her vehicle. She phoned 911 and stated that a man had jumped into her Honda and had stabbed her. She later died as a direct result of the stab-wound injuries. Mr. Belyk was taken into RCMP custody soon after, where toxicology samples were taken on the strength of a warrant. His samples were found to contain trace amounts of cocaine and methamphetamine.
Based on the evidence in Belyk, the MBCA found that the accused did not possess the necessary mens rea for murder as his mind was not functioning in a competent manner. The MBCA in Belyk stated tha “in the event that second-degree murder is not proven because of a lack of requisite intent, this accused must be found guilty of manslaughter”.
Defining mens rea for second-degree murder
Second-degree murder is considered a ‘specific intent’ offence. This means that the accused must have intended to perform the action for a specific purpose. The knowledge is the product of complex thought and the foresight of consequences that flow from that action.’ In other words, there needs to be a degree of clarity of the mind to be cognizant that what the accused was doing would have serious and fatal consequences – this is the mens rea for second-degree murder. Second-degree murder is a very serious offense, second only to first-degree murder in that it has a lower standard of planning and deliberation.
To prove second-degree murderin Belyk, the Crown needed proof beyond a reasonable doubt that:
Mr. Belyk caused Ms. Bung’s death;
he did so unlawfully; and
he had the requisite state of mind to commit murder.
Neither the accused’s causation of the victim’s death nor the unlawful nature of that killing were contested by either side – Ms. Bung had been killed as a direct result of her injuries sustained from being stabbed by Mr. Belyk and the action itself was unlawful (for example, an assault with a weapon is an indictable offence– section 267 of the Criminal Code). To ascertain the third requirement, the requisite state of mind, the MBCA in Belyk turned to a dissection of intoxication. This is necessary because “evidence of intoxication may rebut the common-sense inference that when a sane and sober person does something that has predictable consequences, the person usually intends those consequences”. The MBCA now had to determine the effect of intoxication on Mr. Belyk’s intention of the consequences (death), considering his impaired or reduced mental state on the evidence.
The MBCA affirmed the relevant degrees of intoxication as set out by the Supreme Court of Canada (“the Court”) in R v Daley in 2007:
mild intoxication – this is the relaxation of inhibitions and ‘socially acceptable behaviour’. Likely, this is where one would state ‘I need some liquid courage’. This level of intoxication has never been accepted as a valid rebuttal to the mens rea for murder.
advanced intoxication – this is intoxication to the point of an impairment of foresight of consequences; where the accused lacks specific intent and may raise a reasonable doubt as to the requisite mens rea.
In Daley, the Court had stated that foreseeability of death is the main focus in most murder trials. The MBCA applied this focus when deciding Belyk and was therefore tasked with weighing expert and witness testimony to decide whether Mr. Belyk had the mental capacity to foresee, with clarity, the consequences of his actions. If such lack of capacity existed, a reasonable doubt as to the requisite mens rea for second-degree murder would exist.
Intoxication and abnormal behaviour
In its analysis, the MBCA in Belyk asked several specific questions relating to determining mens rea:
whether the evidence demonstrated that the accused meant to kill or cause her bodily harm that was likely to kill and was reckless as to the occurrence of death; and
whether the accused saw the risk that the victim could die from the frenzied stabbing wounds and went ahead anyway.
The MBCA found, through expert testimony, that Mr. Belyk’s blood tested positive for cocaine, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), diazepam, and methamphetamines, but not to the standard required by police forensic units. The expert physician witness opined that these substances would have significantly affected the accused’s central nervous system and brain function. A second doctor considered a diagnosis of Substance Induced Psychiatric Disorder (“SIPD”). Additional civilian witnesses testified that Mr. Belyk was acting in an altered state both before and after the killing, moving around on all fours, hissing, and appearing to speak in tongues. Expert witness evidence also established that psychotic episodes can continue for days or weeks after the use of cocaine and methamphetamines. It was established through witness testimony that Mr. Belyk had ingested these substances in a relatively short time prior to the murder.
All these combined, taken in tandem with a history of drug use and testimony of sleep deprivation, can cause substance-induced psychosis. In the Supreme Court of British Columbia’s (“the BCSC”) decision in R v Shearer (“Shearer”), the BCSC held that indicatives of psychotic delusions such as disorganized thought processes while speaking, delusions, and hallucinations prove that a mind is not functioning in a competent way. Here, Mr. Belyk was mumbling incoherently, and witness evidence stated he had been hallucinating snakes on the bed. Further, psychosis or a psychotic disorder can be relatively simply described as “an individual’s departure from reality” and can manifest as violence and an inability to be cognizant of the harm they are causing another.
Supplementary evidence was provided by social acquaintances as to the use of cocaine, methamphetamine, Xanax, and lack of sleep in the days leading up to the murder and that Mr. Belyk was “freaking out” and “sketched out” the morning of the murder. Mr. Belyk had, according to both civilian and police testimony, been unintelligible, hissing, and moving around on all fours, which was opined by the police to be “beyond the norm”.
Police and civilian witnesses all testified that the accused was in an altered state, or “zombie-ish”. Mr. Belyk appeared to be “emotionally disturbed, non-responsive, violent, agitated and confused”. Further, there was no evidence to support that Belyk was acting or pretending during any of the interactions – he became more responsive and coherent as the day went on in the hospital and after having slept.
The evidence regarding Mr. Belyk’s mental state before, during, and after the killing of Ms. Bung arguably pointed to a lack of mental capacity. The MBCA in Belyk was satisfied that the accused suffered from SIPD and was in a psychotic state at the time of the tragic killing. Accordingly, the accused did not have the requisite mens rea to commit second-degree murder and therefore was found guilty only of the lesser offence of manslaughter.
A clear absence of mens rea
I agree, based on the above evidence, with the MBCA’s analysis and decision in Belyk. Based on the compelling evidence, it would be difficult to prove that Mr. Belyk was in a clear state of mind with clear knowledge of the consequences of his actions. This was the right choice.