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In episode 5, the 1987 case of Angelique Lyn Lavallee provides a roadmap for the “battered woman defence.” Canada’s first female Supreme Court justice, Bertha Wilson, attempts to expose systemic sexism in the justice system. Helen is charged with first-degree murder, and has to decide whether to accept a plea deal or go to trial.

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In Episode 5, Helen Naslund is charged with first-degree murder, and has to decide whether to accept a plea deal or go to trial.Photo illustration The Globe and Mail. Source photo Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

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Last Tuesday morning, as episode 4 of In Her Defence was released, news was breaking about a quadruple homicide and suicide in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. One woman and three children had been killed, and another woman injured. The perpetrator then killed himself.

Police initially released little information about the situation, except to say that the homicides were a “tragic case of intimate partner violence” and that there was no risk to the public. Unfortunately, the facts when they emerged were sickeningly, maddeningly and tragically familiar.

Reporting in local paper The Sault Star and here in The Globe revealed that the shooter killed his girlfriend, shot and injured his ex-wife, and killed their three children, who were six, seven and 12 years old.

Police confirmed that the killer had a history of intimate partner violence, and had previously pleaded guilty to assaulting a police officer. Police did not release the names of the victims or perpetrator, because “these incidents are the result of intimate partner violence.” This is something I’ve seen many times in domestic violence homicides, and it is a marked difference from how other murders are handled.

When another woman was killed by a stranger in Sault Ste. Marie last month, for instance, police named the victim in a press release. I wondered why it was different in this tragic case of intimate partner violence. Does it reflect an idea that there is still shame and stigma connected to being a victim of domestic homicide? Or, is it because domestic homicides are still somehow seen as being a private, family matter?

Homicide is the gravest of crimes – a crime against an individual, a family and an entire community. I believe all homicide victims should be identified so we can know them, mourn them and, in cases such as this tragedy, tell their stories and hold the system accountable. We need to know whether there were things that could have been done differently to protect these women and children. We need to know whether there are ways the system failed to keep them safe, and make changes.

In this case, the city’s police chief said he would support a coroner’s inquest into the murders, “in part because he sees intimate partner violence as a growing problem.”

As painful as it may be, we have to closely examine and learn from these tragedies. It is the only hope we have of preventing more of them.

Historic moments

In episode 5, we look into the history of the battered woman defence, which establishes that a woman who kills her husband – even while he’s sleeping or walking away – may still be acting in self defence.

While researching this episode, I was excited to find original audio of a seminal speech by Bertha Wilson, Canada’s first female Supreme Court justice. The show’s producer, Kasia Mychajlowycz, picked up a cassette tape of the speech one hot summer day, and we anxiously waited while she found the equipment to turn it into a digital file for the podcast.

It was so inspiring to read and learn about Ms. Wilson, who I knew little about before this project. To hear her speak about women and the law in her own voice was powerful. As we can see from Helen’s case, Ms. Wilson’s call for a justice system that deals more fairly with women remains relevant and important today.

Thank you for reading.


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