July 24, 2022

MCC Day 53 – Using Forensic Psychology to Assess the Killer

In the aftermath of the April 18-19, 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting, the RCMP prepared what they called a “psychological autopsy” of Gabriel Wortman. This document has not been published by the Mass Casualty Commission, but the MCC has published reports from two experts in the field which analyzed the RCMP report. Those two experts testified on Friday.

The authors are Kristy Martire, a professor at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia, and Tess Neal, a professor at the University of Arizona. It is not often clear why certain experts are chosen by the MCC, but one factor that does not appear to figure into their choice is cost. Both Ms. Martire and Ms. Neal appeared in person in Halifax, rather than testifying by video, as many other witnesses and panelists have done.

I note this, as it raises for me a question as to why none of the forensic psychological expertise that is available through Saint Mary’s University, just up the street from the MCC proceedings, was employed. Judging by the depth of insight one might gain from the Martire/Neal report, it seems unlikely that those from Saint Mary’s could not have matched the quality of it, and perhaps done so for a fraction of the cost.

Note as well that these experts were not contracted to provide the MCC with their own, or an alternate, forensic psychological assessment of the killer. There does not appear to be any plan to have one performed either. At least the MCC has not stated that one is forthcoming. So, we do not have access to the RCMP report, and will not receive an independent report analyzing the psyche of the killer. This seems like a shortcoming for an inquiry that, among other things, is trying to figure out why a person committed a mass shooting.

Martire and Neal were highly critical of the RCMP assessment. They did not even know what to call it, noting that it also had elements of a retrospective behavioural profile and a retrospective risk assessment, both of which (in their view) are different than a psychological autopsy. The author of the report, Dr. Matt Logan, was noted not even to be a certified psychologist in Canada, despite referring to himself as a “criminal psychologist”, a term which the experts testified does not exist in the field.

The authors had evaluated the RCMP report by asking 108 designed questions and compared the report to eight identified best practices in the preparation of such reports. They found that 78% of the report features were non-compliant with best practices.

Without being able to see the original report, it is difficult to know what to make of such commentary. Patricia MacPhee, one of the lawyers for the Federal Department of Justice, noted in her questioning of the experts that the report was prepared to assist the RCMP with their investigation, not as a research piece for a peer-reviewed academic journal, and that it should be viewed in this context. The experts said that the standards of psychological reporting must be maintained regardless of the purpose.

The authors stated that the report did not account for the bias of the RCMP in this context. The RCMP has a vested interest in the outcome of the report, as their performance in anticipating and reacting to the killing spree is under scrutiny. If a report were to conclude that Wortman’s actions fit into some sort of pattern that could or should have been noticed or predicted, then the RCMP’s failure to do so would be all the more open to criticism. The report was evidently is written with highly emotive language, and included a dedication at the beginning to fallen officers. These kinds of things would tend to detract from the objectivity of whatever conclusions might be found in the report.

It appears that the media have been provided with copies of the original RCMP report. Following the MCC proceedings on Twitter, I noticed that some portions of the report were being referenced. The tweets have since been deleted, but had referenced the conclusions on each individual killing. This seems like information that the public, and the families, could handle having made public. I was told over Twitter that the families objected to the information being made public because it made improper assumptions about their loved ones. If so, that might justify some redactions, but I think the better approach would have been to release the report, and give each participant the opportunity to make corrections.

We cannot see this on the report summary, but media reports suggest that each of the deceased were classified into one of four categories, “grievance-based”, “reactive”, “incidental random” and “displacement-based”. This last category is the least credible of the four. The RCMP theorized that each of the more elderly victims (other than Tom Bagley) likely represented to Wortman an image of his parents, who he is known to have hated. This seems like a stretch. Other than his animosity towards his parents, there is no evidence that he considered other older adults in this manner prior to the killing spree. Some killings, like those  of John Zahl and Joanne Thomas, have alternate explanations, having to do with the properties they were occupying and Wortman’s long-standing issues with them.

The other major conclusion that the RCMP report evidently made was that Wortman’s goal was the “ultimate humiliation” for his spouse, Lisa Banfield. The theory seems to be that his controlling behaviour over many years was done in an effort to humiliate Ms. Banfield, and the shootings somehow capped that off. This does not stand up to scrutiny as a motivating factor. In fact, it is much more likely that the “ultimate humiliation” was for the RCMP itself,  who Wortman held in low regard, and whose shortcomings Wortman was able to expose through his actions.

The failure to consider this as a more plausible conclusion may be a result of the bias and vested interest that the RCMP had when preparing the report. Though it is much more consistent with the facts to think Wortman was targeting the RCMP rather than his spouse with his plans, making such conclusions would force the RCMP to confront uncomfortable truths about its own structure and capabilities.

The MCC should publish the entire RCMP report, rather than the 27-page summary, which does not delve into the details of any individual killing. They should also commission an independent forensic psychological assessment, to have experts examine what happened and why Wortman targeted certain individuals and bypassed others.

Next week, the MCC will have high-profile witnesses each day, starting with Superintendent Darren Campbell. Chief Superintendent Chris Leather and Assistant Commissioner Lee Bergerman are also expected to testify later in the week.