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An Alberta defence lawyer is asking the province’s Court of Appeal to reconsider an 18-year prison sentence for a woman who killed her abusive husband, saying the term – which has sparked outrage around the country – is unfit and, if it stands, will bring the administration of justice into disrepute.

Defence lawyer Mona Duckett described an “visceral and immediate” outpouring of reaction to the sentence, including multiple editorials, statements from women’s shelters and experts in the field of domestic violence, and a petition that so far has drawn nearly 24,000 signatures.

“This is a unique case because you have the opportunity ... to glimpse the reaction of informed members of the public,” she told the three-person Alberta Court of Appeal panel over a video conference on Tuesday morning.

Helen Naslund, a grandmother of eight, was sentenced in October, 2020, after pleading guilty to manslaughter in the death of her husband at their rural Alberta home in September, 2011.

During the sentencing proceedings, the court heard that after suffering serious domestic violence for nearly three decades, Ms. Naslund shot her husband in the head while he slept, carefully disposed of his body and vehicle, and reported him missing to RCMP.

The couple’s son, Neil, was sentenced to three years in prison for helping her dispose of the body.

The appeal is unusual because Ms. Naslund was sentenced based on a joint submission between the Crown and her previous defence lawyer, Darin Sprake. But Ms. Naslund’s new counsel, Ms. Duckett, told the Court of Appeal the judge’s role was not simply to “rubber stamp” the joint submission, but ensure the term meets the principles of sentencing. One of those principles holds a sentence should not bring the justice system into disrepute or cause a “reasonable, informed person” to lose confidence in the courts.

But Jason Russell, arguing the appeal for the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service, told the court there is no basis to reject the 18-year sentence, and noted that the standard for interfering with a joint submission is “exceptionally high.”

Ms. Duckett had argued there is significant motivation for an accused to plead guilty to manslaughter rather than risk a life sentence for murder, along with a parole ineligibility that could be as high as 25 years. But Mr. Russell said the Crown made significant concessions in the plea deal as well. He said the Crown had a “very strong” case against Ms. Naslund, and that the circumstances were “as near to murder as you can get as a manslaughter.”

“There really isn’t the evidence you need to conclude that she’s acting out of self preservation in this case,” he said. “There are killings in the domestic context that are still murder. You might be mad at your spouse for the abuse you’ve suffered, but that doesn’t mean that it’s self defence. And if you kill that person in anger or revenge, it’s murder.”

Ms. Naslund appeared from the Edmonton Institution for Women, and sat quietly at a table throughout the proceedings.

An agreed statement of facts put before the court at sentencing confirmed a long history of abuse by the deceased over 27 years against his wife, including violence, gunplay, and coercive control. It also recounted Ms. Naslund’s depression, suicide attempts and fear for her safety, as well as her sense of helplessness and concern for her children.

Ms. Duckett said Justice Sterling Sanderman’s characterization of the homicide as ”a callous, cowardly act on the vulnerable victim in his own home” showed he had viewed the sentencing through an “inappropriate and gendered lens.” She noted there was no reference to Ms. Naslund as an abused woman in the sentencing decision.

Even taking into account the aggravating factors, such as the disposal of the body, Ms. Duckett says the sentence is significantly longer than what abused women have faced in other similar cases. She is asking the Court of Appeal to impose a shorter sentence, but has not specified how long it should be.

The Court of Appeal panel, made up of Justices Thomas Wakeling, Kevin Feehan and Sheila Greckol, reserved decision on the case.

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