Nicole Ryan was a battered woman par excellence. As the 37-year-old schoolteacher from Nova Scotia saw it, she had no escape. And the justice system, too, seemed to have no way out in her case. Either her attempt at hiring a hit man to kill her husband could be justified or it could not be.
But the Supreme Court found a just way out for Ms. Ryan and for the justice system. It is not always appreciated that the court’s first obligation is to settle the immediate dispute before them. Ms. Ryan faced a horrible series of injustices; but the hiring of a hit man should be beyond the pale. The court found a way last Friday to free Ms. Ryan from the justice system’s claws, while stopping short of making a case for hit men.
Ms. Ryan’s story should raise the hair on the backs of Canadians’ necks. Her husband, Michael Ryan, a 230-pound ex-soldier, held a gun to her head at least four times; he threatened their daughter; and he killed the family dog. Yet her many pleas for help from the RCMP were not heard, according to the trial judge in her case. And somehow that same RCMP went so far as to conduct a sting operation on her – the “hit man” was an undercover agent.
She was acquitted in Nova Scotia, and the province’s highest court ruled that she acted under duress. The Supreme Court of Canada said, however, that duress applies only when forced to harm someone else to save oneself. But what to do about Ms. Ryan, and the precedent?
The court (with the exception of Mr. Justice Morris Fish) said that, after a five-year legal process, enough was enough. It would be unfair to put Ms. Ryan, who had suffered greatly, through any more. The defence of duress had been unclear, it said, and the Crown had changed its position on that defence between the trial and the appeal, compromising her defence if a new trial were to be held.
It would have been madness to continue to prosecute Ms. Ryan. She’s no danger to anyone. It would also have been wrong to create a precedent in favour of hit men as a solution to violence. The overriding message in the case should be that police need to do a proper investigation when they receive complaints of spousal violence.