Matthew Brown was acquitted March 5th, 2020 after having broken into the home of a professor of Mount Royal University, and brutally beat her with a broom handle before breaking into another house.
Let’s go over that again. A young, fit, white man brutally beat an unarmed older woman in her own home with a weapon while stark naked and screaming leaving her with lifelong disability and mental illness due to the trauma before breaking into yet another house and scaring a minority couple half to death, and nothing bad will happen to him because he made bad choices with substance use and that somehow excuses him.
This entire case is a hot mess so I’ve done the best I can to detangle it. I’ve read the case documents and as many articles as I could find and there were plenty of things that need to be addressed. This case is hugely important, yet it doesn’t seem to be getting the attention it truly deserves.
The reason Matthew Brown walked away with no consequences whatsoever is because the judge accepted the defence of extreme intoxication to the point of automatism.
“Extreme Intoxication: intoxication to the point of automatism-like state. This degree of intoxication negates the voluntariness of the accused's actions. It is a rare defence that only applies to non-violent offences (as per s. 33.1)”
According to the Canadian Criminal Code, you can’t use automatism as a defence in cases where the accused’s actions “interferes or threatens to interfere with the bodily integrity of another person.”
Brown beat Hamnett with a broom handle, leaving her as a bloody mess of broken bones and terror. That is most definitely violent and interfering with the bodily integrity of another person. So, how is it possible that this defence was successful in this case?
It’s just violent turtles all the way down…
The court documents detail the history of this defence and it is 100% men using this defence, almost entirely in violent acts against women. The very first in Canadian history back in 1951, R v Kasperek, involved a man who shot his wife while suffering from a “temporary blackout”. How convenient.
Case after case illustrated more and more firmly that this should never be a valid defence. Throughout the Commonwealth, this was a valid defence not only with intoxication, but also with a “psychological blow”. Though psychological trauma can absolutely decimate someone’s ability to cope with their circumstances, in practice this detail was used as an ill-defined loophole. This meant that men were getting dumped and then attacking their wives, girlfriends or their wives’ or girlfriends’ new partners and saying the breakup was a psychological blow causing automatism. And it worked.
There were two cases in particular that lead to this defence being allowed with Brown’s case. R v Daviault and R v Stone both involved violence that threatened the bodily autonomy of the victims. The Deviault case involved an older woman who was partially paralyzed being sexually assaulted by a drunk man. The Stone case involved a man who stabbed his wife 47 times for nagging him on a long car drive. So, just to be clear, sexual assault of a disabled woman and spousal murder are the cases that enabled this one to go the way it did.
Neither case allowed the defendant to walk away free of consequence, though the Deviault case was able to argue that convicting the defendant of a crime committed while blackout drunk was against his constitutional rights (though no mention was made of the same constitutional rights that were violated as a result of the crime). So why should Matthew Brown be allowed to walk away from this, free from consequence?
A family affair
This case was meant to be heard by a jury however, they were allowed to take this to Justice Michele Hollins instead. Interestingly, the accused had challenged the constitutionality of the section of the criminal code at stake here and it was Justice Hollins’ own brother, Justice deWit, who heard and granted his application.
Judges are meant to be impartial. They should make objective decisions free from outside pressure or criticism. While I don’t know what kind of relationship Justice Hollins has with her brother, I do know that it is very difficult to remain impartial when dealing with family. How likely is it that Justice Hollins would feel compelled to agree with her brother’s opinion?
It’s unclear whether there was a conflict of interest here, however it does seem odd that there are two family members working on the same case. There are 136 Justices in Alberta. It seems odd that siblings would be allowed to work on the same case. It seems like that should be avoided. Yet, for some reason, they did.
That meant that this defence could now be used in this case and it was up to the defendant to provide evidence to support his claims.
The estimates of his substance consumption that night varies wildly. He definitely took magic mushrooms and definitely took alcohol, and according to the case details, cocaine as well. However, Brown told the psychologist who assessed him that he had only 4-5 drinks, plenty of mushrooms, and omitted the detail about cocaine.
It then came out that it was more like 14-18 drinks, which is a BIG difference from 4-5 drinks. The quantity of mushrooms also varied. One source said specifically 2.5g, which is generally the amount you would take to have a therapeutic session with a trained therapist. Another said 4g. The bag he was eating them from contained a whopping 28g. The court documents also state,
"there was no reliable evidence as to the amount consumed by the accused over the course of the night, nor frankly any reliable evidence as to the amount of alcohol consumed simultaneously.”
For a case that hinges entirely on his level of intoxication, it is startling to discover that there is no actual evidence of this. There is no mention of having found any particular levels of substances in his body by a medical professional and the accounts of everyone involved are hazy at best.
A toxicologist by the name of Dr Mark Yarema was consulted and he seemed both experienced and knowledgable enough to introduce some sense into this circus. He shared that psilocybin mimics serotonin, the feel-good chemical we all naturally have in our brains. People on this drug tend to feel very happy, empathic and any harms experienced as a result of the drug tends to be harm against the self not harm to others. He pointed out that there isn’t much research on this substance, especially when combined with other substances. He also never met the accused and therefore can’t really speak to Brown’s state during the events in question. However, delirium is possible at high doses. But again, there aren’t any reported cases of people high on mushrooms ever hurting anyone.
Dr Thomas Dalby, apart from looking like a casino card dealer on his LinkedIn profile, seemed to have a lot to say about things he had no experience with.
He had an interview with the accused (2-3 hours), wherein Brown lied to him about his alcohol consumption, and gave him some personality tests. He admitted that he had never, in his 40 year career as a psychologist, diagnosed a patient with psilocybin intoxication delirium acute hyperactivity before. Never.
Despite this lack of experience, the court accepted his diagnosis, after-the-fact and without full knowledge of the actual amount of other substances Brown had consumed, of psilocybin intoxication delirium acute hyperactivity.
Privilege and Misogyny
This defence has a history rooted in misogyny. Most of the cases discussed using this defence were cases of violence against women.
Canada is the top country for MGTOW, Men Going Their Own Way, an anti-woman movement as well as the birthplace of incels, short for involuntary celibates, who also hate women. These trends are terrifying and have resulted in violent crimes against women such as Alek Minassian’s attack in Toronto in 2018 that left 10 people dead and 16 wounded.
In the words of James Brown in response to being asked about his domestic assault charges, “It’s a man’s world”. It’s no secret that women have generally gotten the short end of the stick for centuries. Often seen as property and denied many rights that men enjoy, it’s been a struggle every step of the way.
Much of our current day judicial system is still based on a world that favours men, since it largely has been shaped by men. Men tend to protect one another and tend not to listen to or trust women. Even women are more likely to listen to a man than a woman. Sexism is deeply entrenched in our culture and our systems to a degree that is almost inescapable without huge efforts against it.
This case, and others like it, is a reminder that this is still very much a man’s world where a woman can be violently assaulted and traumatized and the court system’s main concern is not violating the rights of the man who has caused harm to others. The lack of accountability is written into the legal system, case by case. Things need to change.
How can we fight these anti-woman movements when our laws so often work against women? We need to address the inequality in our judicial system if we stand a hope in gaining gender equality.
We know by now that news is more and more pushed towards sensationalism because that’s what sells. The more extreme a headline is, the more attention it tends to get. Don’t get me wrong, this case IS sensational, but not for the reasons you might think from reading the news.
I noticed some strange choices in the way the case, and the accused, was framed in news stories about this case. In this, and most existing articles about this case, Matthew Brown is identified as an ex-university student. They want you to know that he was young and relatable, with a bright future that was taken from him.
They later make note of mentioning that he was the captain of the hockey team, and other articles really make a point to highlight his hockey career as if to say “sports heroes aren’t villains”. They also make a point of drawing attention to the fact that he cried as the verdict was read and made a genuine apology. “And I meant it.”
Because the title is meant to grab your attention, it very quickly mentions the fact that he was naked, and then that it was “magic mushroom-fuelled”.
The emphasis on magic mushrooms is absolutely an attention-grabber and that’s probably why it’s one of the first details of the case presented in that article. Magic mushrooms are a hot topic these days since the active ingredient, psilocybin, has been approved as a breakthrough therapy for a whole host of mental illnesses.
But they’re controversial. They’ve been very illegal for decades and enshrouded in mystery and myths. The public education about this substance, as well as with other illegal substances, is poor or non-existent.
Introducing this element early positions his actions as entirely due to the drugs, which technically was the conclusion in court. But given how shaky the evidence and expert testimonies were, how true is that?
In reality, if all of these details are true and Matthew Brown really was overcome with his drug-induced hallucinations to the point of being so incredibly dangerous, we need to make sure that he is receiving the help he needs. Alcohol and magic mushrooms are not an excuse for bad behaviour, they merely release your inhibitions. Bad behaviour while under the influence of these substances point to psychological problems that need to be addressed.
It is not surprising that an incredibly privileged young man would be in need of psychological assistance. As we have learned from the Stanford Prison experiment, power corrupts and we know that this demographic has more power than others. We also know that toxic masculinity runs rampant among jocks, setting him up for an emotionally stunted existence. This man needs psychological help and he is walking away from this without it.
As for what the victim is walking away from this with, Janet Hamnett will live with physical disability for the rest of her life. Almost ironically, Janet Hamnett is a Public Relations professor. She understands the complex dynamics of communication and presumably the subtext of how this event has played out. I hope that she knows that none of this is about her.
Yet, that is precisely what is wrong and horrific about this entire chain of events. She is not shown in the video press release (presumably so the public doesn’t get a chance to see her pain or see how he hurt her) and she is given nothing more than a “genuine apology” as if saying sorry is all she needs. An apology is a first step, not a solution.
We need to do better. This approach to justice is insufficient, insensitive and completely unreasonable. This approach to media reporting is dangerous. This lack of addressing the real problems will ultimately spell our destruction.
We need real solutions that invest in the humanity of everyone involved. We need solutions that get at the root of the problem, not just a series of overlapping bandaids. We need to support victims and perpetrators and we need to understand the difference between being “nice” and being supportive.
Click here to read the court documents yourself.