Justice Delayed 19 Years for Ronald Lambert

(14 January 1997) — On 20 January 1997, Ronald Leonard Brown was sentenced to two years in jail for manslaughter. It only took Manitobans 19 years to convict Ronald Leonard Brown, 37, for smothering to death 11 year old Ronald Lambert. This was despite the fact that Brown confessed his actions three weeks after Lambert's death and then on several other occasions.

Ronald Lambert, who had physical and mental disabilities, lived in St. Amant Centre, an institution which provides care to people with disabilities who do not have community living options. The Lambert family placed Ronald in St. Amant Centre because they were unable to care for him. The Winnipeg Free Press describes Ronald as being, "totally dependent and tube-fed" and needing to be "strapped to his bed".

Brown began to work at St. Amant Centre as a volunteer in 1974 and then he was hired as a nurse's aide in 1977. (St. Amant Centre is an example of a total institution which addresses all aspects of a person's life under one roof. Only about one percent of Canadians live in total institutions and the institutionalized population has been declining since the 1980s.)

The Winnipeg Free Press reports that, "Brown took a cotton diaper, folded it into a small pad, and placed it over Lambert's nose and mouth for more than a minute. He then threw the diaper in a laundry hamper."

Three weeks after he smothered Ronald Lambert to death, Brown confessed to his supervisor who advised St. Amant Centre's executive director of his confession. Brown's confession was not believed and Lambert's death from asphyxia was attributed to natural causes due to his condition. St. Amant's Centre did not contact the police.

The Winnipeg Free Press reports that Brown was sent to the psychiatric ward at the Health Science Centre, where he was diagnosed as having acute schizophrenia. He was released the same day and treated as an outpatient.

Prior to his marriage in 1982, Brown confessed again, this time to his wife-to-be. She did nothing about his confession.

Brown's crime finally came to light in 1995, when he confessed his crime to a counselor at the Manitoba Teachers' Society. After that confession, the police were finally involved and charges laid. Initially a charge of second degree murder was laid but this was down graded to a manslaughter charge. Brian Kaplan, Crown attorney, told the Court that Brown, "did not have the specific intent for murder." "There was indication yesterday it may have been a mercy killing. Court was told there was not enough evidence to support a murder charge," reports the Winnipeg Free Press.

Brown pleaded guilty to the manslaughter charge and did not use a psychiatric defense that was open to him.

Who Failed Ronald Lambert?

Canadian society failed Ronald Lambert in many ways. Many individuals also failed Ronald Lambert.

First and foremost, our society failed to provide Ronald Lambert with safety and security and as a result he lost his life. Canadian society institutionalized Ronald Lambert, rather than developing an appropriate community living situation for him where he would have been supported by a network of individuals who cared for him. Trapped in the institutional model of service delivery, Lambert became just another case. His death was perceived as the final manifestation of disability.

The institutional model isolates individuals and violence within institutions is not an unheard of occurrence. For example a Roeher Institute report indicates that in a 1990 study 10 percent of nurses and aides in nursing and intermediate care facilities who were interviewed reported to physically abusing clients and that in the same study 10 percent of attendant care service users reported to having been physically abused by attendant care providers. (Harm's Way: The Many Face of Violence and Abuse Against People with Disabilities (1995)).

Justice for Ronald Lambert was delayed, because the administration of St. Amant Centre failed to give credence to Brown's confession and did not involve the appropriate legal authorities in the case. The Health Science Centre which received Brown as a patient obviously did very little with his confession, releasing him the same day that he was admitted. No one seemed concerned about public safety and that Brown might return to St. Amant Centre and commit further violent acts.

According to the Winnipeg Sun, Provincial Court Judge Charles Rubin "chastised authorities for not reporting Brown's confession." "This matter could have been dealt with when (Brown) was still a young man...and (the Lamberts) wouldn't have had this tragedy visited upon them twice," said Rubin in the Sun.

Individual Manitobans are also culpable in the 19 year delay in bringing Ronald Brown to justice. For example, why did the head nurse who heard Brown's first confession not call the police?

According to Paul Young, chairperson of People First, no one spoke out because Ronald Lambert's death didn't matter to them. "It took nineteen years for justice to be served because Ronald Lambert was someone with a mental handicap, someone who didn't matter," said Young.

"No one took the death seriously. This is just another example of the devaluing attitude of able bodied society," added Young. "People without disabilities do not value our worth. Nondisabled people assume because of their own values and experiences that we are suffering and not valuable to society. To them, we are sub-citizens and disregarded."

"It is time for people with disabilities to take this issue seriously and make it known that we are valuable and society needs to wake up and see that we are valuable," stated Young. He indicated that people who are nonverbal are particularly at risk. "If you can't verbally make yourself known, people discount you."

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Section 7 guarantees the rights of everyone to "life, liberty and security of the person." However, the Charter applies to government action and a court ruling decided that hospitals are not part of the government for Charter actions. (Harm's Way, p.138.) Even if the Charter is not particularly helpful in assisting people with disabilities overcome the violence that exists within institutions, there are other mechanisms available.

Harm's Way suggests a number of public policy reforms (p185-198):

- All disability services be held accountable by provincial law for developing internal procedures to facilitate the identification, reporting and timely response to victimization, including incentive measures and protections for "whistle blowers".

- The discretion of administrators to ignore allegations of victimization needs to be restricted.

- Development of model legislation that actively recognizes and prohibits the types of violence that are occurring against people with disabilities.

- Amendment of the Criminal Code to include prohibitions against verbal abuse and psychological mistreatment of persons with disabilities who rely on others for care and support.

To help promote the fundamental human rights of persons with disabilities, contribute to the Tracy Fund. (CCD, 926-294 Portage Ave., Winnipeg MB, R3C 0B9.)