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This week the Supreme Court of Canada will hear appeals in two sensational murder cases that involved the defence of "automatism," where the perpetrators claimed they did not know what they were doing when they killed another person.

The top court's eventual rulings may help clarify when a jury can be asked to consider this controversial defence strategy in their deliberations.

Tomorrow, the case before the Supreme Court involves Rita Graveline, a Luskville, Que., woman who was acquitted of murder after she killed her husband of 31 years in August, 1999.

After years of beatings and abuse at the hands of her alcoholic husband Michael, Ms. Graveline shot him while he slept, but claimed she was essentially in a trance when she pulled the trigger.

Two psychiatrists who testified at her trial agreed that she was in a state of automatism, brought on by suppressed rage caused by the abuse. The jury found her not guilty.

A majority of judges on a Quebec Court of Appeal panel overturned the acquittal and ordered a new trial, ruling that the lower-court judge made mistakes when he instructed the jury about automatism and the issue of self-defence.

Ms. Graveline's lawyers will argue that the original acquittal should stand.

Three days after it hears Ms. Graveline's appeal, the Supreme Court will consider another controversial murder case, that of former RCMP officer Jocelyn Hotte.

In June, 2001, Mr. Hotte was in a wild chase on a Montreal highway that culminated when he sprayed gunshots at his ex-girlfriend's car. She was killed and three of her passengers were injured.

Mr. Hotte testified that he was in a trance-like state caused by depression, and claimed his actions were not premeditated.

Still, Mr. Hotte was found guilty of first-degree murder in December, 2002, and sentenced to life in prison.

The question Mr. Hotte's lawyers are putting to the Supreme Court is whether the judge in this case -- Mr. Justice John Gomery, who went on to chair the commission of inquiry into the Liberal sponsorship scandal -- should have instructed the jury to consider the defence of automatism.

Both these cases involve what is known as "non-insane automatism," said Sanjeev Anand, a law professor at the University of Alberta. That means the person's behaviour is not a result of a mental disorder, but rather some external factor -- in Ms. Graveline's case, her experience as a battered wife.

The courts have ruled that a finding of non-insane automatism results in an acquittal, because the person is unlikely to reoffend, Prof. Anand said.

But the Supreme Court has shifted its views in the last decade, he said, particularly on the crucial issue that is central to both of next week's cases: whether the automatism defence should be put to the jury to consider in the first place.

In 1999, the top court ruled that there has to be a considerable body of evidence supporting non-insane automatism before a judge can even tell the jury that it might be a factor in their decision.

But in 2004, when another case involving automatism made it to the Supreme Court, the judges were far less restrictive in their language. They said there merely has to be "some evidence" of automatism for that defence to be "in play" with the jury.

The Supreme Court's decision in the Graveline and Hotte cases will likely set a new precedent that will clarify the law.

Prof. Anand said one reason these cases are controversial is that the public is very skeptical of claims of automatism, and he feels those concerns are well-founded.

Recent psychiatric studies suggest that people cannot commit "complex, non-routine behaviour" such as driving a car, or loading and cocking a shotgun, while they are in a state of automatism, he said.

But there have been no recent court cases involving automatism where these new scientific findings have been weighed, he said.

And the Supreme Court, which cannot look at fresh evidence, will not be able to consider any new studies in the Graveline and Hotte appeals.

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