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Woman Prison Photo| Photo: Matthew Henry | cropped from original | Public Domain

Woman Prison Photo| Photo: Matthew Henry | cropped from original | Public Domain

The imprisonment of women who kill abusive partners in self-defence is a sickening injustice that must be challenged, argues John Clarke

In 2011, after enduring nearly three decades of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband, Helen Naslund shot and killed him as he lay sleeping. With the help of her sons, she disposed of the body but her ‘crime’ was discovered six years later. In 2020, she “agreed to a joint submission by the defence and crown prosecutors that would see her serve a sentence of 18 years for manslaughter, thereby avoiding a trial and the likelihood of a far harsher sentence if convicted.”

This month, the Alberta court of appeal cut Naslund’s sentence in half, which means she may be eligible for parole at the end of this year. The court took a dim view of the misogynistic views and conduct of the judge who locked her up, declaring:

“For the sentencing judge to suggest that battered women have ‘other options’ is to invoke a stereotype that a battered woman stays in a situation of domestic violence by choice.”

Indeed, at the time of sentencing, the judge went so far as to describe Naslund’s desperate effort to save herself from further violence and danger as “a callous, cowardly act on a vulnerable victim in his own home.”

Naslund received this harsh sentence despite it being roughly double the kind of penalty normally imposed in such cases. The judge, prosecutors and her own legal representative seemed oblivious to this or to legal precedents in Canada that have accepted that “women are entitled to use self-defensive violence – pre-emptive violence even – when protecting themselves against battering husbands.”

Pervasive violence

Helen Naslund may soon be free and able to rebuild her life but her case is massively disturbing at several levels. The court of appeal substantially reduced her sentence but it must be asked how a woman who defended herself after years of ongoing abuse could face criminal consequences. Of equal significance, the question arises of just why she had no other option but to act as she did. The same state authority that was ready to put her behind bars offered her no protection during the years of horror she endured. This is an intolerable contradiction that must be challenged.

In 1990, Angelique Lyn Lavallee shot and killed her abusive common law partner and her defence in court established ‘Battered Wife Syndrome’ as legally admissible evidence. Law professor Elizabeth Sheehy has considered the defensive killings by women of 91 abusive men that have occurred since then in Canada and concluded that “severely abused women are morally justified in killing their abusers.”

The situation is much the same in the UK, where the Centre for Women’s Justice points out that:

“...despite an apparent increase in the understanding of domestic abuse, we still see so many miscarriages of justice with women who are themselves victims, serving life imprisonment for choosing to survive.”

In the US, similar efforts are underway to defend “the incarcerated survivors of gender violence.”

Yet, women are being thrown into prison for protecting their own lives in a society where domestic violence is pervasive. Every six days in Canada, a woman is killed by her intimate partner and “on any given night...3,491 women and their 2,724 children sleep in shelters because it isn't safe at home.”

These shelters have long been hard pressed to keep up with the need for their services but the last couple of years have seen the situation become even more dire.

“During the pandemic, several helplines for women experiencing domestic violence have reported striking jumps in calls, with many noting the urgency and severity of callers’ situations having intensified.”

Yet, even at the start of the pandemic:

“on any given day in Canada, 620 women and children fleeing domestic violence (were) turned away from the very shelters that are supposed to provide them a safe place to stay.”

The same police forces and ‘justice system’ that are ready to criminalise women who defend themselves, have the most dismal track record when it comes to responding to domestic violence. This is all the more appalling given that “Intimate partner violence makes up nearly one-third of all police-reported violent crime in this country.” Despite this:

"If you ask anyone who's worked in the field or who's been an advocate for people navigating the system, you know their consensus is that there have been no improvements over the last 30 years."

The role of poverty and a lack of basic economic supports in preventing women from leaving violence in the home is considerable.

“Women’s economic independence and security is necessary for the elimination of woman abuse. Many women living in abusive relationships are very aware of the choice they make: poverty or abuse.”

Complicity

Over some twenty eight years that I spent as an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), I saw countless appalling examples of how women are pressured to stay in abusive situations and how state agencies are complicit in this. We intervened to win some basic repairs to the home of one particular family living on the horribly inadequate payments provided by the misnamed Ontario Works (OW) programme.

At one point, as we drafted a strongly worded letter to the neglectful landlord, the woman broke down crying. She told me that it was her fault she and her family lived in such wretched conditions because she had left her abusive partner and put her own safety above the needs of her children. It is beyond shameful that poverty should be the price paid for safety from the threat of violence.

On another occasion, we took a large and very disruptive delegation to an OW office to   challenge a requirement placed on a woman seeking benefits that she obtain a letter from her abusive former partner confirming he no longer lived with her. Such an outrageous demand couldn’t be justified and had to be withdrawn but we may be sure that this particular woman was not the first to be put in danger and threatened with destitution in this way.

The great injustice, and the terrible ordeal that Helen Naslund has had to endure, is an indictment of a whole system. That system condemned Naslund to years of horrific violence, without providing a shred of protection. Yet, when she acted to defend herself, she was treated as a criminal. Her freedom was taken from her and she faced character assassination at the hands of the judge. There are many more Helen Naslunds locked away for protecting themselves and every one of them must go free.

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John Clarke

John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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