Winemaker murder trial ends with Crown, defence agreed on facts, at odds over accused’s mental state

Bradley House killed Paul Pender — on this the Crown and defence agree.

But was the Hamilton man in his right mind when he stabbed the renowned Niagara winemaker to death outside Pender’s cottage east of Selkirk in Haldimand County in February 2022?

That is the central issue Superior Court Justice Michael Bordin must decide now that House’s trial for second-degree murder is over.

At the close of the day on Friday, House — who has pleaded not guilty — was placed in handcuffs and escorted from the courtroom in Cayuga by two special constables, bound for the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre.

Where the 33-year-old ultimately lands is up to Bordin, who heard the case without a jury.

The accused’s fate depends on whether Bordin accepts the Crown’s contention that House entered a psychotic state because of the drugs he had taken the day he killed Pender, a stranger whose cottage House had ran to while bleeding from the head.

A drug-induced psychosis would make House culpable for the killing.

House’s defence team says their client should be found not criminally responsible (NCR) because of a mental disorder they allege is schizophrenia, which left House unable to understand what he was doing when he stabbed Pender with a kitchen knife he grabbed moments after entering the cottage.

Should Bordin concur with that theory, House would likely be committed to a correctional treatment facility and be subject to annual evaluations by a provincial review board.

House got to Pender’s cottage around 8 p.m. on Feb. 3, 2022, after bolting from the Selkirk construction site where he had been working. He ran roughly 1.5 kilometres through a blizzard while not wearing a coat and turned up at the door complaining that a twig was lodged in his ear.

House had been having hallucinations about there being a camera inside his ear and picked up a twig to dislodge it. But by the time he got to the cottage, Pender, his wife, and father-in-law could not see any twig.

Defence lawyer Beth Bromberg said her client was by then in a full-blown psychosis that left him unable to understand his actions.

It was not a “conscious decision” to swing the knife at Pender, Bromberg said.

But Crown attorney Gabe Settimi argued that House chasing Pender out of the cottage and down the road “suggests an intent to harm.”

Pender’s wife, Allison Findlay, hit House with a broom and the assailant also got tangled up in a dog leash as he left the cottage.

But House continued to pursue Pender, fatally stabbing him on a neighbour’s driveway.

“He doesn’t drop the knife,” Settimi said. “He locked in on Paul, for whatever reason, (and) took specific, goal-oriented action.”

Running after Pender does not mean House knew what he was doing, Bromberg countered.

House could not form the intent to kill because his actions were “dissociated” from his thoughts due to the psychosis caused by his schizophrenia, she said.

Drugs or mental disorder?

House, a regular drug user at the time, took cocaine, marijuana and oxycodone — in the form of Percocet tablets — the day he killed Pender, according to a toxicology report introduced during the trial.

But the strength and amount of those drugs remains a mystery.

“We don’t really know how much drugs he had, (but) he was adamant it was the same routine as always,” Bromberg said.

In the Crown’s view, the drugs triggered House’s psychosis.

“It’s the drugs on that day that clicked in and caused this,” Settimi said.

But Bromberg blamed “a disease of the mind unrelated to intoxication,” noting House had exhibited symptoms of schizophrenia — such as seeing visions and believing he was being followed and spied on — earlier in life.

The symptoms continued after he was off narcotics and taking anti-psychotic drugs while incarcerated.

“We’re 20 months out now. If it’s a drug-induced psychosis, he shouldn’t need medication and he shouldn’t have psychosis still,” Bromberg said.

House claims to have no memory of killing Pender, telling the court he “blacked out” shortly after leaving the construction site and only regained his senses when he woke up in a hospital bed.

A skeptical Settimi called House an “unreliable” witness.

“Mr. House’s story is shrouded in a veil of confusion, vagueness and inconsistencies,” Settimi said, accusing House of lying on the stand to protect himself from the consequences of his actions.

Bromberg admitted House was a “terrible historian,” but said he was forthright with the psychiatrists who interviewed him and his accounts of his drug use could be trusted, even if the details were fuzzy.

“He’s not lying to anybody. He just has significant learning and memory impairments,” Bromberg said. “I think it’s completely credible that he didn’t remember.”

Generational trauma

Bromberg urged the judge to apply the Gladue principles to this case, due to House being Indigenous from Six Nations of the Grand River.

Most often used during sentencing, Gladue instructs judges to take an Indigenous offender’s background into account through the lens of systemic challenges faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada, such as abuse, poverty, and drug and alcohol addiction.

Bromberg recounted House’s experiences of sexual abuse as a childhood, growing up in poverty with an alcoholic mother and physically abusive father, and having several siblings and cousins die at young ages, all of which left him coping with depression as an adult.

House’s difficult personal history, along with the generational trauma that started when his grandparents met at residential school, “magnifies” his “complex trauma,” Bromberg said.

Bordin noted Indigenous people do not have schizophrenia at higher rates than non-Indigenous people, but Bromberg said the disorder is “linked” to House’s history of trauma.

“It’s all part and parcel of his mental state and mental disorder,” she said.

Settimi acknowledged the need for Gladue in the legal system, but told the judge he was “not certain” how the principles applied to House’s case.

Need for treatment

Committing House to a secure facility where he would receive treatment for schizophrenia, drug addiction and “complex trauma” would be “the best way of protecting the public,” Bromberg said, while asking Bordin to find her client not criminally responsible.

“I hope he can get well. But I don’t think he can do it without treatment,” she said. “Without that treatment, he remains a continuing danger.”

House needs help, Settimi told the judge — but for drug addiction, not a mental disorder.

An offender having delusions and hallucinations, and even a formal schizophrenia diagnosis, does not automatically justify an NCR ruling, the prosecutor noted.

Bordin will give his decision at the Cayuga courthouse on Jan. 3 at 10 a.m.

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator