David Miller had Huntington's disease, an incurable disease that was robbing him of his personality and would eventually kill him. Then things got worse. On Dec. 26, 2009, Miller stabbed his wife Susan to death. Their family was left to pick up the pieces.
Part two of three-part series
A gene cannot be shamed, punished or denounced. It knows not what it has done, nor the damage it has wrought.
But the sister and mother of Susan Miller say they know.
For a decade, Debbie Milne and Jean Anderson could only watch as Huntington's disease-a disorder caused by a malfunctioning gene- irreversibly and without mercy robbed Susan's husband, David Miller, of his mental and physical acuity.
Then, on Boxing Day of 2009, a police officer knocked on their door and told them David had taken Susan's life.
Milne, Susan's sister, and Anderson, Susan's mother, share a modest rancher in Sardis. Just 24 hours before that knock, they had celebrated an evening with Susan, David, and the couple's daughter, Lee. (At the family's request, the Times has used a pseudonym for Susan's daughter.)
Neither Milne nor Anderson ever saw any sign that David's Huntington's could cause him to harm those around him. Researchers say that the risk of violence is similar to other mental illnesses, but far from common, especially if a patient's psychiatric symptoms are effectively treated with drugs.
But after Susan's life drained from her on Boxing Day of 2009, Milne and Anderson were sure that David's terrible act was caused by his mind-altering disease.
Prosecutors weren't as sure.
Susan was dead. David was in jail. Lee was essentially an orphan. And Anderson and Milne found themselves almost unable to comprehend the turn of events.
Three years later, they speak in even tones borne of familiarity with tragedy. But still they seem a little shellshocked. "I never in my wildest dreams believed that it would come to what it came to," Milne said
In the minutes and hours after the killing, there wasn't time to contemplate who and how and why. Instead, the family went into "survival mode," Milne said.
The immediate focus was Lee, then just 15 years old. After stabbing Susan, David had walked down the stairs, told Lee what he had done. She was the one who called 9-1-1, who waited alongside her mother for paramedics to arrive.
After police arrived, Lee went to stay at a friend's house. Meanwhile, her aunt and grandmother tried to reassemble a life for her. Those first days were a blur. Anderson quickly applied to become Lee's guardian but found the courts slow and unresponsive to her situation-a hurdle that still rankles.
"Why would there be any question of where [Lee] would go?" asked Anderson, still angry at a court system that she said made them jump "through hoops." Then there was the Millers' family house. It was a murder scene, but it also held all of Lee's possessions and was the home of horses, sheep, dogs and cats. That challenge was overcome only because of the help of local Mounties and neighbours.
"I don't believe we would have come out of this as unscathed as we did, without the help of some very kind, kind people," Milne said. One RCMP member in particular, she said "is now a part of our family."
School administrators at G.W. Graham also came in for high praise.
Meanwhile, prosecutors had begun building their murder case against David. At a later court hearing into David's fitness to stand trial, Crown counsel Henry Waldock would tell the court about discord in the Millers' marriage. That, he said, gave David a motive regardless of his mental state. The eventual question for the court to decide would be whether David's misfiring brain caused him to kill his wife, or whether he did so of his own volition.
Victims and their families often find themselves aligned with prosecutors in a quest for justice. This was not one of those cases.
Just weeks after the killing, Paul McMurray stood before the court representing David Miller. He had been hired by Milne and Anderson. It was admitted that David had stabbed his wife. But whether he could form the intent necessary for a murder charge to stick was still unclear. For the next two and a half years, McMurray would work to have Miller spend the rest of his life not in a prison, but in a forensic hospital.
The family's move to defend, rather than condemn, Susan's killer didn't sit well with everyone. While neighbours refused to judge, others were more willing to cast blame.
"I suppose you hear about something horrific and for most people, the thought that comes to your mind is, 'I hope they throw the book at that guy,'" said Milne. But Anderson and Milne both say they felt no anger towards David for what he did.
"They were both gone from us," Anderson said. Yet David was still alive. Is still alive. Milne and Anderson knew the killing showed David to be dangerous and in need of confinement. But neither thought their in-law deserved to decay and die in prison alongside hardened criminals.
"This is a guy who had never been in trouble," Milne said. "He has to be somewhere in custody because he did something horrible." But, she added, "he wouldn't last in prison . . . At the end of the day, the best thing that we could hope for was that he not be held in prison [but] that he be held in a forensic hospital."
Before he could stand trial for murder, David first had to be judged fit to stand trial. To be fit, a defendant must be able to participate in his or her own defence, by making decisions and instructing counsel. The defendant's mental state at the time of his or her crime is not a factor.
It's a relatively low bar to meet and in October 2011, a judge ruled David, while sick, was capable of standing trial.
Looking back, Milne and Anderson have few good words to say about the criminal justice system. They call it inflexible, cold, inefficient and political.
"Is this a man who knew what was going on? Clearly not," Milne said.
David's legal journey was also agonizingly slow. Milne and Anderson would repeatedly show up to court, only to be told a hearing was delayed until another date. It was torture, but hardly rare in B.C.
"When you're going to court to participate in something, there's a whole psychological process that takes place before you go," Milne said. "When you look at the timewasting factor, it doesn't appear to ever occur to the people in that system, how does it impact the people who are here to do this, to hear this, to speak to this, whatever."
But those delays also allowed McMurray to retry the fitness issue.
In the months after he was declared fit to stand trial, David's condition deteriorated. Last spring, a month before his trial was set to begin, more testing was ordered.
Those tests showed David could understand neither the legal process, nor any potential sentence. He couldn't communicate with counsel or remember what happened the previous day. Two weeks before the scheduled start of the trial, David was ruled unfit to stand trial and sent back to the Port Coquitlam forensic psychiatric hospital where he was being held.
It was, for all practical purposes, the end of David Miller's court saga. He is scheduled to appear in February of 2014 in order to determine whether he is still unfit. But Huntington's patients do not get better. There are no miraculous recoveries.
Survival is a game of chance. Through medicine and personal actions, we can improve our odds. But even loaded dice sometimes come up snake eyes. One loss means you can lose twice means you can lose three times.
Milne and Anderson know that all too well. In a decade, Milne lost her father, uncle, older sister and-on Boxing Day of 2009-both her younger sister and brother-in-law.
"This is a family," Anderson said, "who after the last 11 years had had more than its share of tragedy."
And yet, the two women sit in the Sardis home they now share with Lee and marvel at how not-messedup their lives currently are. Things feel normal. Or at least normal-ish. Life goes on.
And that's why they're sitting talking to a reporter.
"To see the brilliance of the blue sky and have happiness in your life, you have to forgive," Milne said.
Neither woman is religious. They don't blame-and hence can't forgive- either David or God. But the game of chance that blesses and robs, that roll of a dice that leads to Huntington's disease and everything it brings with it-that they can forgive. That they must forgive.
"There isn't a person to forgive, so you have to forgive the circumstances," Milne said. "You have to get past the 'Why us? Why our family? Why have we had so much tragedy?'
"Whether it's a person you have to forgive or the circumstances you have to forgive, you have to find a way to do it. Otherwise it can take over your life."
David Miller will likely die in a forensic hospital. Milne and Anderson have only seen him during court appearances. Lee has met with him just once and it seems unlikely that she will do so again; his condition has continued to deteriorate and won't stop until he dies.
Anderson said the family doesn't avoid talking about those they've lost, including David and Susan. "It's absolutely important to include the funny things and the difficult times," Anderson said. "We keep them with us.
"I still look at them together," she said.
While British Columbia is blessed with one of the world's leading Huntington's disease research facilities, awareness of the disease is lacking in other areas of the health system. That may have to change, especially since a soon-to-be-released study shows that the disease is far more prevalent in British Columbia than previously thought. That story in part three.
© Copyright 2013