Inquiry into deaths of Lionel Desmond and his family delayed after lawyer switch

GUYSBOROUGH, N.S. — Frustration and anger erupted on the first day of an inquiry into the tragic case of Lionel Desmond, an Afghan war veteran with PTSD who fatally shot his mother, wife and daughter before turning the gun on himself in early 2017.

With the third anniversary of the killings in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S., approaching, the fatality inquiry was supposed to hear from its first witness Monday, but the process stalled when one of the two families involved requested an adjournment.

As the hearing opened in a small municipal building in nearby Guysborough, N.S., the inquiry’s commissioner — provincial court Judge Warren Zimmer — confirmed that the parents of Desmond’s wife Shanna had replaced their lawyer last Friday.

Ricky and Thelma Borden’s new lawyer, Tom Macdonald, told Zimmer he needed time to review the files before the inquiry, which include more than 120,000 pages of evidence.

“Participation means participation,” Macdonald told the commissioner. “It doesn’t mean mere presence.”

Macdonald stressed he was worried about fairness and access to justice. “If there was a denial of access to justice, that could give rise to … the spectre of an injustice.”

Some of the lawyers present told Zimmer they were not opposed to a delay, but the lawyer for Chantel Desmond — one of Lionel Desmond’s four sisters — said an adjournment was a bad idea. Tara Miller said postponing an inquiry already three years in the making could lead to more delays

“The lessons learned from this inquiry … will take some time to formulate,” she said. “Our Canadian Forces military members and their family members are looking for solutions now.”

Adam Rodgers, the lawyer for Chantel’s twin sister Cassandra, also said his client was opposed to an extension.

In the end, Zimmer decided the start of the inquiry would be postponed until Jan. 27, saying the delay was needed to ensure the process was fair for the Borden family.

Though he recognized the delay would be frustrating for some of the parties involved, he said sticking with the schedule wasn’t right.

“Would it result in an actual or perceived unfairness to the Borden family in the circumstances?” he asked “I would say, likely, because they would be here unprepared, not engaged the way they would like to be and have the right to be.”

Minutes later, Cassandra Desmond and her sisters retreated to a room in the basement of the building, leaving the door open, where she could be heard shouting about the unfairness of the delay. “I’m pretty sure we’ve waited long enough,” she said.

Later, having regained her composure, Cassandra Desmond said the adjournment was frustrating but she understood why the Bordens needed more time.

“It’s very disappointing because we’re going on to the third anniversary,” she said. “January 3rd will be three years since this tragedy took place … Every time the anniversary hits, we have to relive this tragedy.”

On Jan. 3, 2017, Lionel Desmond bought a rifle and later shot his 31-year-old wife, their 10-year-daughter Aaliyah, and his mother Brenda, 52, before killing himself with a shot to the head.

The 33-year-old retired corporal had been diagnosed with PTSD after two violent tours in Afghanistan in 2007.

In the months after the murder-suicide, relatives repeatedly said Desmond had sought treatment for his mental illness and post-concussion disorder. They said he never got the help he needed.

The inquiry is to examine whether Desmond had access to mental health and domestic violence services — and whether he should have been able to buy a rifle. It will also investigate whether the health care and social services providers he dealt with were trained to recognize occupational stress injuries or domestic violence.

Another of Desmond’s sisters, Diane, said the adjournment “put a damper on my heart.”

“I believe that the longer we wait, is another day that we’ll lose a veteran,” she said. “We need to get closure. We need to move forward, because it never gets easy.”

The family’s fourth sister, Katlin, also said the inquiry owed it to suffering veterans to move forward.

“I’m trying to fight for the veterans who don’t have a voice,” she said. “They fought for our rights. Their rights need to be fought for as well. This needs to stop being put on the back-burner.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2019.

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press

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