Community leader’s killer found not criminally responsible despite testifying he acted on purpose

For years Osama Filli denied that he had “crazy thoughts” and maintained that he stabbed beloved community leader Nahom Berhane to death in self-defence, believing the man had been sent to kill or kidnap him.

He testified as much at his 2017 trial, where he refused to argue that he was not criminally responsible for killing Berhane, 34.

But Filli, 28, also displayed concerning symptoms of delusions and paranoia before and after the stabbing. He repeatedly questioned whether Berhane had indeed died after the violent attack in the early hours of Sept. 27, 2014 outside a café on the Danforth — or if someone was playing “tricks” on him.

On Tuesday, after five years of hospitalizations, psychiatric assessments and treatment for a schizoaffective disorder, Filli was found not criminally responsible for killing Berhane.

“His psychosis rendered him incapable of knowing his act was wrong,” said Superior Court Justice Maureen Forestell in her ruling, noting that the case had been unusually complex.

It is fairly common for individuals to deny having a major mental illness, but it highly unusual for a person found not criminally responsible to also explicitly state they knew exactly what they were doing, said one of the psychiatrists who testified at the hearing.

The Crown argued Filli did know what he did was wrong, noting that he ran away after the stabbing and that he showed no obvious signs of psychosis in his police interview after his arrest the next day.

However, Forestell accepted the psychiatric evidence that the symptoms of schizoaffective disorder fluctuate in intensity so Filli could have appeared perfectly fine for periods of time.

In the months leading up to the attack on Berhane, Filli believed he was being “hunted,” Forestell said. He had become homeless and was living at a shelter. Two weeks before the stabbing he went to a clinic seeking an antipsychotic medication and spoke of “whispers telling him to do things” and “acting crazy.”

A few days later, two acquaintances took a knife away from him which upset him because he said he needed it for protection. He bought a new knife nine hours before the fatal stabbing.

At his 2017 trial Filli said he was afraid he was going to be killed in a confrontation between himself and three men including Berhane. He said he took out the knife and decided to use it to “give (Berhane) some pain to distract him.”

He testified there was “too much thing was going on in my mind. I thought they were going to kidnap me. I thought they were going to kill me, I thought they … too much thing was going on at that time.”

Forestell rejected his claim of self-defence as objectively unreasonable but found that the Crown had not proved that Filli intended to kill Berhane. She acquitted Filli of second-degree murder but found him guilty of manslaughter. After the verdict, the Crown requested a psychiatric assessment to determine if the Crown should raise the defence of not criminally responsible as Filli still refused to do so. In 2018 Filli changed his mind and argued that he should be found not criminally responsible.

On the night of the stabbing Filli had five or six shots of bourbon and smoked marijuana, which Forestell found may have made it harder for him to suppress his schizoaffective symptoms.

However, she found that it was his delusions and not intoxication from the marijuana and alcohol that prevented him from knowing what he did was wrong. She also found his psychosis was not substance-induced, but from his schizoaffective disorder.

As a result of Tuesday’s ruling Filli will not be given a prison sentence. Instead he will be detained at a psychiatric hospital until he is deemed to no longer pose a significant threat to the safety of the public. There is no limit on how long he can be detained at the hospital — his release is entirely up to the Ontario Review Board, a five-person panel including a psychiatrist and a medical doctor or psychologist which oversees about 1,500 people who have been found unfit to stand trial or not criminally responsible due to a serious mental illness.

Filli must have his first hearing before the review board within 60 days.

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Berhane’s family — who attended almost all the court appearances including the final emotional court ruling which came shortly after the fifth anniversary of his death — will be able to provide victim impact statements at that hearing.

A scholarship in Berhane’s name has been set up to assist youth pursuing post-secondary education.

Alyshah Hasham

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