A French psychiatrist has been found guilty of manslaughter after one of her patients hacked an elderly man to death, in a landmark ruling that could have a major impact on the care of mentally ill patients in France.
Danielle Canarelli, 58, a doctor with 30 years of experience who is based in Marseille, was given a one-year suspended prison sentence because judges said she had committed the “grave error” of failing to recognize the public danger posed by her patient, Joel Gaillard.
Gaillard, 43, who is now said to suffer from a kind of paranoid schizophrenia, had been treated by Canarelli between 2000 and 2004.
In February 2004, he escaped during a hospital consultation with her. He went to Gap, in the Alps region, and 20 days later used an axe to kill his grandmother’s partner, Germain Trabuc, 83. Gaillard reportedly thought that his inheritance was threatened by Trabuc.
Gaillard fled the scene of the crime, but was later hurt as he tried to break into a building, after which he went to a hospital to be treated. Police arrested him there.
Trabuc’s son decided to take legal action against the psychiatrist after Gaillard was found criminally irresponsible for his actions because of his mental health.
In their ruling against the psychiatrist, the judges said Canarelli had failed to properly evaluate the danger posed by her patient, who had been forcibly committed to a secure hospital on several occasions for a series of increasingly dangerous incidents, including a knife attack, arson and an attempted murder.
The court said Canarelli should have requested Gaillard be placed in a specialized medical unit, as one of her colleagues had suggested. Her refusal had amounted to a form of “blindness,” court president Fabrice Castoldi said, but stressed: “We are not judging psychiatrists or the psychiatric profession, but a particular case.”
Defense lawyers said the ruling would have serious repercussions for the treatment of the mentally ill.
“If a psychiatrist lives in fear of being sentenced, it will have very real consequences and probably lead to harsher treatment of patients,” said Sylvain Pontier, Canarelli’s lawyer.
SPEP, the union for French state psychiatrists, said the verdict risked scapegoating the profession over a complex case. The union said Canarelli had notified police after her patient’s escape.
Psychiatric medical staff protested outside court during the trial with banners, one of which read: “Dark day for psychiatry.”