When she walked out of the bedroom of her Springbank, Calgary, home, where she lived alone, Hamnett, a public relations professor at Mount Royal University, was attacked by a “huge presence.” Again and again, a naked 6-foot-tall man beat her around the head and arms with a broken broom handle, not pausing between blows. He screamed the whole time—making animal-like roars, Hamnett said—but didn’t form any words. Hamnett fell to her knees and tried to protect her face. When the attacker finally stopped and went upstairs, Hamnett locked herself in her bathroom to tend to the gashes on her face and arms. Both her hands were broken. She would later testify in court that there was “blood everywhere.”
The man who broke into Hamnett’s house and beat her relentlessly is Matthew Brown, 29, former captain of Mount Royal University’s hockey team. (Brown and Hamnett did not know each other from the school.) Last week, Brown was acquitted of break and enter and aggravated assault, even though he doesn’t contest Hamnett’s version of events.
“It is difficult to look at these victims and tell them that the law is not going to hold anyone accountable.”
His defence? He was so high on psychedelic mushrooms that he had no control over what he was doing.
The precedent-setting case, in Alberta at least, raises questions about who is accountable when someone gets so intoxicated that they lose control and hurt another person. Brown said he consumed more than a dozen drinks and did an unknown quantity of mushrooms that night. He said he doesn’t remember the attack.
“It is difficult to look at these victims and tell them that the law is not going to hold anyone accountable… not withstanding that we know exactly who committed the offences against them,” wrote Justice Michele Hollins in her acquittal decision.
Brown’s defence is known in the legal world as “automatism.” It means that a person is carrying out unconscious, involuntary behaviour. When a person who commits a crime has a mental illness, they can argue automatism and be found not criminally responsible. But a person who successfully argues automatism and doesn’t have a mental illness is fully acquitted of their crimes; one high-profile Canadian case saw a man named Kenneth Parks acquitted of murdering his mother-in-law in 1988 because he argued he was sleepwalking.
Automatism due to severe self-induced intoxication is a rarely used defence, and is believed to have never before been successful in Alberta.
In fact, the Criminal Code states that self-induced intoxication is not a defence when the accused commits a violent crime against another person.
However, Brown’s lawyer Sean Fagan successfully challenged the constitutionality of that law, consequently opening up the self-induced intoxication defence for more people accused of violent crimes in the province. That part of the Criminal Code has also been struck down in other provinces, and Fagan said the issue will end up being decided in the Supreme Court of Canada.
Intoxication-based automatism is a challenging defence to mount (though Fagan said in this case, it was easy). Normally the accused in a criminal case doesn’t have to prove anything, but if they are arguing automatism, they need to show, on a balance of probabilities, that the offences were committed involuntarily.
“Without a guilty mind, it’s very hard to see a constitutional and fair way to deprive someone of their liberty for something that they didn’t know that they were actually doing,” said Ottawa-based defence attorney Michael Spratt.
“With self-induced intoxication, it’s a little bit more difficult to wrap your mind around it because… you’re intentionally bringing yourself to that state.”
Brown was at a small party at his friend’s house on that January evening, where he said he drank 14 to 18 drinks, a mix of cocktails and beers. He also started eating magic mushrooms in half gram portions. Judge Hollins noted there’s no reliable evidence as to how much he consumed, but likely more than a gram at least.
At nearly 4 a.m., Brown got naked and ran outside of his friend’s house into -20 C temperatures. His friends tried to call him back, and alerted the police when he didn’t listen.
Brown’s lawyer said he “covered quite a bit of ground,” even crossing a freeway while naked in frigid temperatures before winding up at Hamnett’s house, where he assaulted her. She hid in the bathroom until it was quiet, then ran to her neighbour’s place. Afterwards, Brown was spotted by Hamnett’s neighbours naked and trying to break into cars.
At around 5 a.m. Brown broke into another couple’s house by hurling a statue into the glass of their front door, causing $6,000 in damage. The couple called police, who found Brown on the couple’s bathroom floor, his feet bloodied and bruised. He complied with officers and appeared to be confused, as if he was waking up.
As part of Brown’s defence, his lawyer called two expert witnesses, both of whom testified that Brown’s mushroom consumption resulted in “delirium”—an altered state in which a person may experience psychosis.
One of the experts never spoke to Brown. The other, forensic psychologist Thomas Dalby, said he’d never diagnosed a patient with psilocybin (the active ingredient in mushrooms) intoxication and had limited experience with shrooms.