Fiona Coyle was suffering from a psychotic episode when she stabbed and seriously injured two people on the street in Nelson in September 2019, a judge said Friday in Nelson court.
Because of her mental state, Coyle thought she was defending herself from a lethal threat and was not capable of knowing the attack was wrong, Justice David Crerar of the B.C. Supreme Court ruled.
“Given the degree of severity in Ms. Coyle’s psychosis … it appears her ability to understand the moral wrongfulness of her actions was gravely impaired,” Crerar said. “It was fear and confusion engendered by the delusions that lead Ms. Coyle to commit the offense.”
Coyle, 50, was arrested after she stabbed local resident Ramita Kedia many times with a 10-inch hunting knife as passersby attempted to restrain her in a busy downtown pedestrian intersection. Kedia was hospitalized for several weeks and has still not fully recovered.
Coyle, who isn’t from Nelson, and Kedia did not know each other and the attack was unprovoked.
The other victim, Stephen Fowler, one of the people who intervened, was stabbed in the leg.
Coyle has since been in custody at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital in Coquitlam, where she is still undergoing treatment for schizophrenia and schizotypal personality disorder.
The court decision will put Coyle’s future in the hands of the provincial Mental Health Review Board, who will decide if, when, and under what conditions she will be released from the hospital into the community.
Coyle’s lawyer Blair Suffredine said this can be more onerous than a prison sentence.
“It’s a sentence that can last your whole life,” he told the Star. “It does not go away. If I commit manslaughter and get five years in jail, I get out in five years. When you get referred to the Mental Health Review Board, you are there until they are satisfied you are safe to be out. Some people stay in the hospital their entire life.”
The judge’s decision was based on a report by psychiatrist Dr. Andriy Kolchak, and came after a short trial on July 22 in which the Crown and the defense presented the judge with an agreed set of facts, making it unnecessary to call witnesses to the incident. The only witness to testify was Kolchak.
‘A crescendo of physical and psychological anxiety’
In his decision, Crerar outlined the circumstances of the attack based on police and psychiatric reports.
Coyle, who is from England, was travelling around Western Canada after unsuccessful applications for academic positions in two universities. She has a PhD in human geography.
She told police that for several weeks she had been moving around a lot because she was being targeted by people in the underground drug trade who were hacking her personal data and had their own secret language and gestures.
She believed she was being spied on, that people were putting paint thinner in her coffee, and that Nazis were targeting her because of her dark skin. She had an intense fear of black mold, which she said covered many of the rooms she stayed in.
The day before the attack she purchased a large hunting knife in Nelson. She said she was planning to go camping and it was to protect her from bears.
Just before the attack she was on the sidewalk outside the former Wait’s News on Baker Street, anxious and fearful that she was being trolled and targeted, afraid for her life. Witnesses said she appeared tense and angry.
She knew she desperately needed to get out of the downtown area for her own safety and started walking very quickly down the south side of Baker Street toward Stanley Street, through a crowd of late afternoon pedestrians, all of whom she believed were dark forces out to destroy her.
Witnesses said she appeared fiercely angry, erratic and delusional.
She drew her knife, thinking this would make people move out of her way. By the time she got to Stanley Street she was increasingly afraid and broke into a run. In the intersection, her anger and anxiety peaked and something snapped. She remembers shouting at Kedia to stop trolling her. She told the court that she doesn’t remember attacking Kedia or the ensuing struggle with several others.
After the attack, she thought people on the street were laughing at her.
“[During] the weeks leading to the attack Ms. Coyle’s psychotic mental illness and paranoia that she was being stalked and targeted by various sinister forces intensified,” Crerar said. “These paranoid delusions reached a crescendo of physical and psychological anxiety, [culminating in the knife attack].”
The judge outlined Coyle’s life in the several years leading up to the attack as a “somewhat eccentric lifestyle of spontaneous educational pursuits and global travel,” in which Coyle moved often while being plagued with a variety of paranoid delusions. In 2018 she spent three months in a psychiatric hospital in England with delusions similar to those described in Nelson court.
Coyle has no history of alcohol or drug use nor criminal activity.
‘It is not punishment, it is care’
Kedia sustained stab wounds to her upper torso and arms. The judge said she still experiences pain and will likely need further surgeries to repair damage to her arm.
Shazad Shah, who witnessed the incident and whom Coyle attempted to stab, told the court that he has been forced to leave a professional training program and move away from Nelson due to post-traumatic stress. He regularly has flashbacks and suffers from depression and anxiety, he said in a victim impact statement.
Shah, who is Black, stated that he believed Coyle’s attempted attack on him was racially motivated.
Fowler, who was stabbed in the leg, told the Star his leg is still sore but otherwise he is doing fine. He said he was pleased at the outcome of the court process.
“It was not adversarial,” he said. “Everybody went into that [courtroom] to make sure that she is not a danger to herself or others, and that hopefully she will receive the help she needs to get better if that is possible, and if not, she will be kept where she can’t hurt anybody.
“And it is not prison, it is not punishment. It is care. They took care. Everybody did.”
This story was amended on May 27 to add detail to the paragraph about Shabad Shah’s impact statement.