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Nichele Benn to ask for assessment prior to entering plea in assault case

HALIFAX – Nichele Benn will return to court next week to argue she should undergo a medical assessment prior to entering her plea.

The Nova Scotia woman, who has intellectual disabilities, is facing charges after an alleged incident on Dec. 12 with a staff member at the Lower Sackville residential facility where she lives.

Police allege the 26-year-old woman bit one employee and struck another with foam letters and a shoe, which led to charges of assault and assault with a weapon.

Jane O’Neill, Benn’s lawyer, said police intervention was not the appropriate course of action.

“Health issues like those Nichele has should not be criminalized,” she said.

Benn describes her experience ever since the incident as a “nightmare.”

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“It’s hard for me to even possibly sleep at night, I’m that upset,” she said.

Brenda Hardiman, Benn’s mother, said her daughter has cerebral palsy, epilepsy and an organic brain disorder that causes periodic episodes of aggressive behaviour.

Benn’s case has garnered support across Nova Scotia. On Jan. 5, five demonstrations were held by supporters to raise awareness about what they say is the “criminalization of special needs.”

O’Neill said an assessment is needed to determine whether Benn is criminally responsible for her actions at the Quest Regional Rehabilitation Centre.

Hardiman said the family’s biggest concern is that Benn might be incarcerated.

“We all know what that does to people with special needs and Ashley Smith is a prime example,” said Hardiman.

Ashley Smith was initially jailed for throwing apples at a mailman. Four years later, she choked herself to death in an Ontario prison. Hardiman said people with special needs shouldn’t be going through the criminal justice system.

“It’s not something anybody wants to experience, particularly with somebody with special needs,” she said. “It’s a horrific experience.”

The case has been adjourned until Jan. 22, when O’Neill is expected to file an assessment application to determine whether Benn is criminally responsible for the incident.

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*with files from The Canadian Press