July 14, 2022

MCC Day 47 – Predicting Mass Shootings, and Questions for Lisa Banfield

The Mass Casualty Commission hosted two panel discussions today, which served as something of a reprieve, or calm before the storm, of a week focused on the history of violence of the killer, Gabriel Wortman, and the evidence of his spouse, Lisa Banfield. The panel discussions focused on (the futility of) predicting mass shootings and the psychology of mass killers. Ms. Banfield will be speaking tomorrow, and so in anticipation of Ms. Banfield’s appearance tomorrow, I have considered some questions that remain for her to answer.

The first panel was entitled “Prediction and Prevention of Mass Casualty Events”, and featured Prof. Benjamin Berger from Osgood Law School in Toronto, Dr. Myrna Lashley from McGill, Prof. Nikolas Rose from Kings College London, Prof. George Szmukler from Kings College, and African Nova Scotian Justice Institute Executive Director Robert Wright.

The world of the movie Minority Report, where ‘precogs’ were able to accurately predict future crime, is about as far from reality as can be. From this panel, we learned that predictive tools are very bad at predicting future violence. The best tests have false positive rates in the 85%+ range, which means there is an overwhelming risk of falsely predicting violent behaviour.

The Blackstone doctrine, which states that it is better for ten guilty persons to go free than for one innocent to suffer, is inverted in this sense. Risk assessments results would have it that roughly nine innocents would suffer for every one guilty person.

That is not to say there is nothing to be done. Risk factors such as serious mental health challenges, access to automatic weapons, and heavy use of alcohol should all be taken seriously and addressed on an individual and societal basis, as ways of reducing the statistical likelihood that a mass shooting may take place.

Mr. Wright respectfully made a very good point near the end of his time speaking about moral panic and outrage, noting that the resources being directed at this Commission dwarf that which has been directed at the inquiry for the Home for Coloured Children, and to strategies directed at alleviating harms from sexual offences in Nova Scotia.

The second panel was called “Psychology/Sociology of Perpetrators of Mass Casualty Events”, and featured Professors Tristen Bridges and Tara Leigh Tober from the University of California Santa Barbara (from whom we also heard earlier this week), Prof. David Hofmann from UNB, and Dr. Angelique Jenny from the University of Calgary.

This group spent a long time discussing what we are told is to some degree a dispute among academics as to the definition of ‘mass casualty’. The panelists said that there is a debate as to whether domestic violence cases should be included, and it sounded as though they were among the minority of experts who advocated in favour its inclusion. There is also debate as to whether the definition should require there to be some definable motive behind the killings, be it personal grievance or ideological drive, behind the perpetrator’s actions.

If one had not been following the MCC proceedings, you may have expected these experts to then turn their attention to the events of April 18-19, 2020, and attempt the difficult task of parsing the mixed nature and apparent motivations of the many elements of the shootings. Instead, as has been the MCC practice so far with expert witnesses, there was no attempt to analyze what took place, and identify its place among the definitional spectrum, or how it might refine existing definitions.

Lisa Banfield will be giving evidence tomorrow. She will be questioned only by MCC lawyers, and will not be subjected to cross examination. This is a major flaw in the MCC process, one which has generated fresh outrage from the families and from the public. The families have refused to legitimize the process by submitting questions, as they were invited to do, to the MCC lawyers to ask. It will be up to the MCC lawyers themselves to justify the process through the quality and depth of their questioning.

There are many questions one might imagine asking Ms. Banfield. Some are factual about her movements during the night of April 18-19, 2020, and some about her actions in advance of the killing spree.

She should be asked about the terms of her Restorative Justice referral, and whether she completed it/them, and whether this testimony is part of that agreement. The extraordinary conditions under which Ms. Banfield is testifying, not being subjected to cross examination and not having to talk about the main events of the mass casualty, have been presented as having originated with the Commission itself. It may have been a negotiated feature of the Restorative Justice process, and if so she should tell us.

She could be asked about prior events, such as how often Cst. Wiley, or any other police officer visited them in Portapique or Dartmouth, what she knew about the capabilities of the replica car and whether she ever considered the potential danger of its existence, and what she knew about his access to weapons and ability to get them across the border.

That last piece might be particularly helpful, as the ability to get those guns across the border is the primary reason Wortman was in possession of such an arsenal. It seems she may know more about his weapons than she has thus far revealed. In her April 28, 2020 police interview, for example, Ms. Banfield alluded to being worried that Wortman would throw something at the truck in which she first hid to blow it up, suggesting she knew he had grenades (knowledge she has denied).

Later in that interview, she was talking about the cross-border smuggling activity, when Staff Sgt. Vardy seemed to purposefully steer her away from what she was describing into a place where she denied direct knowledge of how Wortman, a NEXUS holder, was able to get guns across the border. She admitted only overhearing things, or getting snippets of information from Wortman. Now that she is beyond criminal consequences, she may be inclined to be more forthcoming.

As to the events, she may explain things like why her coat was not found despite her saying it was thrown in the woods adjacent to a path, whether the size eight slippers found in Debert next to other items from Wortman’s car were hers, and whether she has any thoughts on why Wortman made the (very risky from his perspective, if he had extensive plans to carry out) decision to not pursue her further and instead move on to others?

Then, I think it will be important for people to hear how and when she learned about how many people were killed, and started to appreciate the scale of events, what she thought about it all as she tried to piece it together, and why she has not spoken out publicly about what has taken place.

There will be significant pressure on whichever lawyer is chosen to question Ms. Banfield, especially if the lawyer is not lead counsel Emily Hill. There is a delicate balance to be maintained by whichever lawyer is asking questions. On the one hand they will have to take a respectfully restrained approach that will be considered appropriate in light of Ms. Banfield’s status as a survivor or domestic violence. At the same time, the lawyer will have to demonstrate a willingness to apply a degree of probative pressure to the witness, as a means of justifying the decision to not allow cross examination.

Tomorrow is an important day for the MCC, and could go in many different directions. Everyone involved will be under something of a microscope.