Draconian sentence of abuse survivor reveals courts' disconnection from reality

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Image: M.T ElGassier/Unsplash

Helen Naslund is paying a steep price for our collective failure to protect her from male violence. Absent our urgent intervention, this 56-year-old Alberta woman will spend up to 18 years in the penitentiary because she acted in response to the daily threat of being killed by her husband.

The draconian manslaughter sentence against Naslund -- a survivor of three decades in an abusive marriage from whose clutches she tried to escape, including through a number of suicide attempts -- was delivered by a condescending Court of Queen's Bench Justice Sterling Sanderman, who clearly knew nothing about the bleak prospects facing women in Naslund's situation.

"Everybody realizes this is a tragic situation," Sanderman solemnly declared. "Most people who are charged with criminal offences aren't evil people. They're not bad people. They react poorly when other options are open to them. They overreact and they have to pay the consequences."

But what were those elusive options allegedly available to Naslund? And did she, in killing her abusive spouse before he made good on his incessant threats to kill her, truly "overreact"?

Both of those statements from the bench were thinly veiled attacks on Naslund and all women in her shoes. Indeed, they essentially boiled down to the "why didn’t she just leave" question that is always asked by those who fail to understand the dearth of resources, supports and life-saving relief available to women escaping the terror of their domestic lives.

In fact, as author Ann Jones (Women Who Kill, and Next Time She’ll Be Dead) has pointed out, why a woman doesn’t leave "is not a real question but rather a judgment" that transforms "an immense social problem into a personal transaction [and implies] help is available to worthy victims."

Lengthy history of abuse

In an agreed upon statement of facts, the Crown acknowledged that throughout the marriage, there were "many" instances of physical and emotional abuse committed against Naslund, who at five foot, one inch weighed about 100 pounds.

Indeed, the way Helen Naslund described it, her spouse was a classic abuser: "When I was in public he was always right there, if I talked to a friend he had to be there with his input. I couldn't go anywhere without him … it was always 'do as I say or else.'"

The statement of facts also acknowledged that "due to the history of abuse, concern for her children, depression and a learned helplessness, she felt she could not leave."

It is not clear why a guilty plea of manslaughter was entered, nor why her defence lawyer worked in tandem with the Crown to produce such an extraordinarily disproportionate sentence even as they discussed -- but then dismissed -- the availability of a defence based on "battered woman syndrome."

Indeed, as University of Ottawa law professor Elizabeth Sheehy (whose book Defending Battered Women on Trial is an indispensable resource) pointed out in an Edmonton Journal interview, 18 years is among the longest of any manslaughter sentence imposed on an abused woman, and the majority of women in the cases she has studied received two years or less and sometimes a suspended sentence or house arrest. (A much smaller number received a federal sentence, the longest of which was 10 years).

Helen's son Wesley gave a post-sentencing interview in which he detailed the many ways his mother tried to navigate the terror of living with her abusive spouse.

"Nothing worked," he said. "And I believe at the end, when it happened, I believe that my mother was -- I could tell she wasn't mom no more. She was empty, she was blank. At times, you'd look at her and you'd swear her eyes were hollow."

Wesley says he was also beaten by his father, and that it was always like walking on eggshells, having to account for everything he did. His father always kept a gun close at hand, ruling by threat and intimidation.

He also says his mom tried to leave when he was 16, and he remembers her coming out of the bedroom after telling her husband it was over. When she emerged, he said, "she had tears in her eyes and all she said was 'I can't go, he says he'll find me and he'll kill me.'"

Helen Naslund shot her abusive husband in September, 2011, as he was sleeping. All day long, her controlling husband's threats increased in violence (she would "pay dearly" for the breakdown of a haying machine, he promised, throwing wrenches at her). He threw everything from the dinner table onto the floor, and drunkenly ordered her and her son Neil around with a gun.

With the assistance of her son Neil (who was also sentenced to three years in prison), she disposed of the body and reported her husband missing. The following six years were described by her son Wesley as the only time in her adult life when she was actually free, a period that came to an end when another of her sons reportedly let slip what had happened.

The right to self-defence

Were she the subject of a country music song, Helen Naslund's story would be cheered at concerts and the subject of a music video, celebrating someone who, like the survivor in The Chicks' "Goodbye Earl," did what had to be done and then reported a "missing person that nobody missed at all." (Other hugely popular country tunes in which women feel their only option is to kill their abusers in order to live include Miranda Lambert's "Gunpowder and Lead," Diana Jones' "If I Had A Gun," and Martina McBride's "Independence Day").

But Judge Sanderman apparently does not listen to country music. "This was a callous, cowardly act on a vulnerable victim in his own home," he declared

Crown prosecutor Dallas Sopko said it also represented "six years of deceit," given that Naslund insisted to authorities that she didn't know her spouse's whereabouts.

One might contrast that with the way a B.C. man was sentenced earlier this month to 10 years in prison for the murder of a young woman 27 years ago. Stephen Laroche, who had previously been sentenced to life behind bars for killing a Manitoba woman in 1996, was credited by the Crown and defence counsel for pleading "guilty at the earliest availability" (even though he only did so 27 years after the offence).

He was sentenced as a "first time offender" because this murder was committed prior to the Manitoba murder.

Elizabeth Sheehy's Defending Battered Women on Trial documents many cases with disturbingly similar patterns of women trying to end the abuse they faced, including that of Jane Hurshman, whose killing of her abusive spouse in 1982 was documented in a best-selling book, Life with Billy.

She was acquitted by a jury, but the government of Nova Scotia appealed, resulting in her eventually pleading guilty to manslaughter to avoid a trial. She ultimately received a six-month sentence in which a judge warned that women "don't have the right to take the lives of their husbands" and that she should not have played "judge, jury, and executioner."

Sheehy writes:

"Hurshman was condemned by prosecutors and judges for not choosing the appropriate route to deal with [her abusive spouse's] reign of terror. But no one specified what that route was. She was credited with 'choice' and therefore responsibility for how she secured her and her children's safety, while [the Nova Scotia attorney general who appealed the acquittal], arguably one of the most powerful men in the province, claimed he had no choice and therefore bore no responsibility for the legal injustice committed against her. The state justified its response to 'the law' and its principles, when a jury of her peers understood all too clearly that 'the law' had nothing to offer Hurshman."

Her book examines the jurisprudence that outlines why women do not need to wait for the "uplifted knife" to act in self-defence. This term arose from the Supreme Court's Lavallee case, a decision written by Justice Bertha Wilson that Sheehy says told Canadians:

"that women are entitled to use self-defensive violence -- pre-emptive violence even -- when protecting themselves against battering husbands. Battered women, declared Justice Wilson, need not wait for 'the uplifted knife' before protecting themselves. It would be condemning women like Jane Hurshman and Lyn Lavallee to 'murder by instalment,' she cautioned, if they are required to wait until a lethal attack is in full swing before using justifiable force."

This brings us back to the case of Helen Naslund, whose act of self-defence ended the murder by instalment that she faced. Wilson also noted, in words that should be emblazoned on the desk of Judge Sanderman, that it was "not for the jury to pass judgment on the fact that a battered woman stayed in the relationship. Still less is it entitled to conclude that she forfeited her right to self-defence for having done so."

The aforementioned Lavallee case was also significant because Wilson noted the different self-defence standards applied to women and men. As Sheehy relates the decision:

"since traditional self-defence doctrine does not require that men retreat from their own homes before killing an intruder, women could not fairly be held to a higher standard: 'A man's home may be his castle but it is also the woman’s home, even if it seems to her more like a prison in the circumstances.'"

No real resources

The Trudeau government has utterly failed in meeting its United Nations' commitment to implement a national action plan to end male violence against women and girls.

Direct federal funding to women's organizations represents less than 0.01 per cent of total federal program spending (or approximately about $1 for every woman in Canada). In contrast, spending on war in this country (under the rubric of "national defence" and "security"), works out to about $1,667 for every woman, but that massive investment has never done anything to protect them from male violence.

A year ago, the Alberta Council of Women's Shelters (ACWS) released a report on an epidemic of male violence against women that found the province had one of the highest rates in the country, with the severity of the violence increasing (two-thirds of women in Alberta shelters stated they were at "severe" or "extreme" risk of being killed by their male partner).

"ACWS members sheltered 10,128 women, children and seniors this year, but shelters had to turn away 23,247 women, children and seniors requesting shelter due to a lack of capacity across the province," said Jan Reimer, executive director of ACWS. That represented a 38 per cent increase in numbers turned away over 2018.

The challenges facing rural women like Helen Naslund are even greater, as we were reminded this week by a report from Women's Shelters Canada on the massive spike in domestic terrorism committed by men against women in their homes during the pandemic.

Web hits at Women's Shelters Canada doubled in March 2020 over the previous year, and were three times as high in April. The sexual violence helpline in Alberta saw calls rise 57 per cent, with a 300 per cent increase in calls at B.C.'s Battered Women's Support Services.

Pandemic of femicide

Meanwhile, the safety of men who have been incarcerated for battering appears to have been prioritized during the pandemic.

A recent study found that some judges: "seem to put more weight on prisoners potentially contracting COVID-19 in jail than they put on victims having to have an offender back in the community, who could potentially use violence against them."

In one such Ontario case, a judge granted bail to a man facing assault, breaking and entering, and harassment charges against his former partner because, in the words of Judge David Harris, "to be in a jail as an inmate or a staff member must count as one of the most dangerous places imaginable."

And while it is true that prisons are never safe environments, whether or not there's a pandemic unfolding, there appeared to be no real consideration of the woman's safety here.

Earier this week, independent United Nations human rights expert Dubravka Šimonović noted that COVID-19 is overshadowing what has become a "pandemic of femicide" and related male violence against women and girls. She called for the universal establishment of national initiatives to monitor and prevent such killings.

With the second wave of the pandemic continuing to strain services and restrict movement, another layer has been added to the prison-like environment that is home to far too many women.

"There are big concerns that physical distancing restrictions, while important from a public health perspective, really plays into the hands of abusers," explains Marilyn Ford-Gilboe, who holds the women's health research chair in rural health at Western University.

For shelter directors and front-line workers, "the severity of violence is like nothing they've ever seen before," says Nadine Wathen, who holds the Canada research chair in mobilizing knowledge on gender-based violence at Western. "The lockdown gives women very little chance of seeking help, of getting relief from the perpetrator. It's this toxic stew of opportunity for escalation of pre-existing violence."

University of Calgary professor Lana Wells notes that, in addition to the lack of a national action plan:

"[n]ot one province has a comprehensive strategy in their gender-based violence prevention plans that’s targeted to men and boys. Violence is gendered and we know that, so when you’re thinking about going upstream, where do you want to start? You want to start with men."

As the Canadian government marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, some groups released figures indicating that the rate of male violence remains staggeringly high.

The Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability documents that from January to September 24, at least 110 women were murdered by men in Canada. In other words, almost every other day in Canada, an act of femicide is committed almost exclusively by a man.

Believing battered women

Even if a woman (and her children) were to run to a shelter, there is no guarantee of finding space, and the very act of trying to escape might in fact increase the danger they face.

In May 2019, the standing committee on the status of women's report on male violence against women found

"Women's groups, shelters, transition houses, and front-line workers from across the country have all called for the federal government to provide secure, multi-year, core operational funding to women's organizations, and to ensure equality of access to services and protection for all women in Canada. Responding to cries for help from women's organizations struggling for decades due to the lack of federal core operations funding, the previous NDP Women's Equality Critic Sheila Malcolmson launched the 'Time to end the underfunding of women's services' campaign. It calls on the Liberal government to heed this call for core funding."

While systemic change is definitely required, there remains the question of how we can support those women criminalized because they have chosen to live.

"I'm not saying it was right, because it wasn't -- murdering," Helen Naslund's son Wesley told the Edmonton Journal. "However, I believe there is a certain level of justification to why the murder happened."

Reflecting on the comments made at sentencing, especially those that painted Helen's abusive husband as an innocent victim, Wesley concluded:

"The prosecution … had a comment about it: 'he lost the feeling of safety in his own home.' That may be true … but my mother lost that idea likely months after they were wed."

Helen Naslund's case screams out for attention, for support, for the long-promised but never realized systemic change needed to address the biggest terrorist threat faced by 52 per cent of the population: the systemic and individualized male violence that is only exacerbated by the pandemic and encouraged by a toxic culture so infused with misogyny that it is the daily norm.

Sheehy's book concludes with an invitation for us to listen to the words of women like Helen Naslund: 

"Believe battered women when they say that they are in danger. Believe them when they fear for their children's safety. As Elizabeth Dermody Leonard argues, "[a] woman who is told 'If I can't have you, nobody can,' and who manages to survive that final deadly assault by her male intimate is the closest voice we have to the many women who do not live through that last violent assault. The more we learn from their lives, the more lives can be saved." … When women kill to save their own lives, they assert that they matter, that their lives count -- even more than the lives of their abusers. After everything that their batterers have done to them, told them, and called them, after their own efforts to please, to placate, to abnegate themselves to meet the unreasonable demands of petty tyrants, they have somehow taken a stand for their own humanity and saved themselves. And for this we should also be grateful."

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. "national security" profiling for many years.

Image: M.T ElGassier/Unsplash

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