Appeal Draconian 18-Year Sentence of Alberta Abuse Survivor Helen Naslund
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We support an appeal of Alberta abuse survivor Helen Naslund’s 18-year sentence for manslaughter. This survivor of three decades of male violence defended herself against the constant threat of being killed by her abusive husband. A similar appeal is warranted in the case of her son, Neil, who assisted his mother in freeing herself from that constant threat.
Allowing the current sentence to stand would constitute a grave miscarriage of justice.
Elizabeth Sheehy, a professor of emerita of law at the University of Ottawa (and author of Defending Battered Women on Trial, and retired judge Lynn Ratushny (who conducted the Canadian Self Defence Review, which analyzed the cases of 98 Canadian women convicted of killing their abusive partners), wrote in the December 10, 2020 Edmonton Journal why such an appeal is warranted:
As the window to appeal Helen Naslund’s guilty plea and sentence for killing her abusive husband closed this week, we see another woman’s life laid to waste by male violence and justice system failures. In March, she pled guilty to manslaughter and in October, she was sentenced by the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench to 18 years for her actions. Her case raises many questions, fuelling our serious concern that a grave miscarriage of justice has occurred.
Naslund was an Alberta rancher, wife and mother to three sons, who survived almost three decades of marriage to a violent and coercively controlling man. She married young, at 19, and repeatedly attempted to leave her husband. When that failed, she tried to escape through suicide. As her eldest son Wesley stated publicly, Naslund only experienced any “freedom” as a girl, before she married, and during the six years after she shot her husband and before she was apprehended for his killing.
In Naslund’s acknowledged circumstances of having killed in response to repeated and severe violence against her, why did the Crown decide that its original charge of first degree murder was a proper exercise of its prosecutorial discretion? Was this an example of over-charging for coercive leverage? One of the significant findings of the Self-Defence Review, completed by Lynn Ratushny in 1997, was that the crushing weight of murder charges frequently deter battered women from persevering to trial and airing their legitimate self-defence claims. She therefore recommended that prosecutors charge manslaughter, not murder, when they are willing to accept a manslaughter plea.
Given Naslund’s experience of coercive control and battering by her husband over the years, why did she plead guilty rather than go to trial and seek acquittal on the ground of self-defence? The defence is a contextual one that allows consideration of many factors, and acquittal is possible even when the victim is asleep. We do not know the thinking behind Naslund’s defence advice but defence lawyers need to be knowledgeable about the effects of domestic violence on women. Did Naslund plead guilty to manslaughter to get everything over with, to obtain the certainty of an agreed-upon sentence, or to protect herself and her children from having more terrible details of their family life painfully experienced again?
Why did Naslund’s lawyer consider that “battered woman syndrome” did not apply? Was a pre-sentence report obtained? Were any expert reports obtained from individuals with expertise on violence against women? At the very least, evidence of the abuse she suffered should have been a strong mitigating factor reducing her degree of moral blameworthiness for the killing and, therefore, her sentence.
The Crown and Naslund’s counsel jointly recommended a sentence of 18 years. When receiving a joint submission on sentence, judges should not depart from it unless they consider it would bring the administration of justice into disrepute, or is otherwise not in the public interest. Why did the judge regard the 18-year sentence as appropriate? While it may well be that plea negotiations leading to the joint submission cannot be disclosed, 18 years for manslaughter in a domestic violence situation is extraordinary in Canada, as illustrated by the research of Elizabeth Sheehy in her book, Defending Battered Women on Trial: Lessons from the Transcripts. The average sentence was two years less a day, and the longest manslaughter sentence was 10 years. Even more disturbing, a recent sentencing decision canvassing manslaughter sentences for male batterers who kill their spouses shows an average sentence well below that received by Naslund.
Could it be that Naslund was also, in effect, sentenced for her “six years of deceit” after the killing, as the Crown had characterized it? Was this conduct treated as having increased her culpability for the killing itself? Was any consideration given to the fact that Naslund had already been in captivity for almost 30 years by her abuser, a point made by other judges in issuing compassionate sentences to women who killed their abusers?
These compelling questions demand answers for Naslund herself, her sons and also for the Canadian public. Violence against women and the ensuing corrosive effects on women and children are no longer private matters, but rather systemic ones that require public responses by our justice system. We therefore call upon the attorney general of Alberta to initiate an appeal of Naslund’s plea and sentence, as the only mechanism available to achieve the transparency and accountability we deserve.
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