By the time her husband had executed the family dog and threatened her with a similar end, Nicole Ryan could take no more abuse.
The Nova Scotia schoolteacher sought out a hit man.
However, when the contract killer she approached turned out to be an RCMP undercover officer, Ms. Ryan was arrested for counselling murder and plunged into a precedent-setting legal case.
In an important ruling on Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada will use her case to determine whether an abused spouse can plot the murder of a violent partner and avoid prosecution.
Advocates for abused women are hoping for a resounding endorsement of a woman’s right to defend herself – even if it means hiring someone to do the job, said Elizabeth Sheehy, a University of Ottawa law professor.
“Whether or not her acquittal is upheld, I hope that the court will also accept that self-defence is available for women like Nicole Ryan who have planned self-defensive homicide in advance or have turned to third parties for help,” said Prof. Sheehy, author of a forthcoming book on battered women.
On the other hand, Prof. Sheehy said that if the court convicts Ms. Ryan or orders a retrial, it will “send a chilling message” to Canadian women.
The case has echoes of a landmark 1990 judgment in R. v. Lavallee, when the Supreme Court created the so-called battered woman defence. Under the defence, a woman can be acquitted of murder if she has been subjected to extreme abuse.
Unsure whether Ms. Ryan would be able to utilize the argument of self-defence in the context of a contract killing, her trial lawyers opted for a novel approach: They asserted that she had been under extreme and sustained duress.
Ms. Ryan, 39, was acquitted at trial. In upholding the decision, the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal noted that she gave up on obtaining help from police, who apparently did not want to interfere in domestic disputes.
Nicholas Bala, a Queen’s University family law expert, said the ability of the justice system to protect victims of domestic abuse is on the line in the Ryan case.
“In my view, it would be highly desirable for the Supreme Court to affirm the lower court decisions and recognize that this woman was left in a terrible situation by the justice system,” he said.
Prof. Bala said that upholding an acquittal in the case would not constitute a licence for women to take out contracts on their husbands.
“This case featured an extremely abusive situation that lasted for 17 years, and the police and family justice officials repeatedly failed to protect her,” he said. “Those are two elements that are critical in this case.”
At 6 foot 3, Mr. Ryan towered over his diminutive, 98-pound wife. He was a career soldier who drank excessively, held a gun to his wife’s head on several occasions and regularly demanded sex.
“I was afraid of what he would do if I ever refused,” Ms. Ryan testified at her trial. “You don’t know what to do. You feel helpless. You feel worthless. You don’t even feel like a human being any more, but you know that you have to do it in order to feel safe.”
When she finally suggested divorce, Mr. Ryan rammed his fist through a wall and promised to “destroy” her and their daughter if she persisted. He also supplied details of how he would dispose of their corpses.
Isolated and unable to get help from the police, Ms. Ryan moved out but remained petrified of her husband.
Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said that, on average, a woman is killed every six days by her intimate partner.
“It would simply be unacceptable that men in barroom brawls are entitled in law to plead self-defence and obtain acquittals – even in cases where they were the initial aggressors – and then deny abused women any defence,” she said.