Murderous Minds on Trial: Terrible Tales from a Forensic Psychiatrist's Case Book


323 pages
ISBN 1-55002-361-6
DDC 616.85'844





Reviewed by Geoff Hamilton

Geoff Hamilton, a former columnist for the Queen’s Journal, is a
Toronto-based freelance editor and writer.


Murderous Minds on Trial looks at how Canadian courts handle murder
cases involving the mentally ill, or those who purport to be mentally
ill. The book is organized into five sections illustrating legal
responses to different types of offences and offenders—The Insanity
Defence, The Intoxication Defence, Automatism and Provocation Defences,
Verdicts and Sentencing, Sentence Administration—and concludes with
the chapter “A Psychiatrist’s Prescription,” Semrau’s compelling
suggestions for reform of the criminal justice system. The book’s
examples involve trials in which Dr. Semrau participated as an expert
witness, although the circumstances of specific crimes and the names of
those involved have been disguised (the two exceptions are chapters on
Clifford Olson, Canada’s most notorious psychopath, and “The
Abbottsford Killer,” Terry Driver, whose cases are already publicly

Each case is presented in an engaging narrative style that often reads
like conventional crime fiction (without the whodunit suspense).
Semrau’s cases, always engrossing simply as “terrible tales,”
effectively demonstrate the inadequacy of the legal system in handling
cases in which mental illness plays a role in murder. The courts have
failed to keep up with advances in medical knowledge and classification,
and the verdicts of many trials, as the book shows, frequently fall
short of securing justice for both offenders and society. In setting out
his strategy for reform in the final chapter, Semrau asks that we
“rebuild” the system “from scratch,” allowing for more flexible
and individually appropriate sentencing. Particularly convincing is the
author’s discussion of the flaws in the provocation defence, which
absolves those who offend in anger, and of the justice system’s
inability to recognize and fairly provide for special circumstances, as
in the so-called “mercy killing” committed by Robert Latimer (a case
discussed only in passing). Some bad editing mars portions of this book,
but its lurid subject matter and contemporary relevance will likely make
it of interest to lay readers as well as those involved in psychiatry
and forensics.


Semrau, Stanley, and Judy Gale., “Murderous Minds on Trial: Terrible Tales from a Forensic Psychiatrist's Case Book,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 23, 2024,