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Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

After years of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of her husband, Miles, Helen Naslund shot him in the back of the head while he was sleeping. That was in 2011. She and her son Neil disposed of the body in a pond near their Alberta farm and reported him missing.

Only in 2017 did the killing come to light. Ms. Naslund pleaded guilty to manslaughter; Neil, to a charge of offering an indignity to human remains. Her abuse was not central to her defence, and at a sentencing hearing Ms. Naslund was given 18 years. Neil received a sentence of three years. Justice Sterling Sanderman said the killing was a “callous, cowardly act on a vulnerable victim in his own home.”

It’s the 18-year sentence that has outraged Ms. Naslund’s supporters – quite rightly. A petition that has collected more than 20,000 signatures in support of Ms. Naslund’s judicial appeal calls the sentence “draconian,” and that’s a pretty good description. It’s certainly out of line with the sentences handed to other abused women in Canada who have killed their husbands.

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“It’s an extraordinary sentence,” Elizabeth Sheehy, emeritus professor of law at the University of Ottawa and author of Defending Battered Women on Trial, said in an interview. “It’s the longest sentence I’ve ever seen for an abused woman who pled guilty to manslaughter, by far.”

In Prof. Sheehy’s study of 49 women who pleaded guilty to a charge of manslaughter for killing their violent partners between the years 1990 and 2005, 30 received no jail sentence at all or a sentence of less than two years. Of the 19 who received federal sentences, most got between two and five years. Two women received eight-year sentences – “they were the outliers,” Prof. Sheehy said.

So what accounts for the harsh punishment handed out to Helen Naslund? It probably has to do, in part, with the fact that she and her son covered up the crime and led the police, as the Crown lawyer said, “on a wild goose chase.” The fact that her husband was sleeping when she shot him might have played into it, though Prof. Sheehy pointed out that when Ottawa’s Lilian Getkate pleaded guilty to shooting her abusive husband while he slept, she received only a two-year sentence in 1998 – and even so it was house arrest.

What certainly seems lacking in Ms. Naslund’s case is any consideration for the devastating physical and emotional torment she suffered during the years of her marriage. A mother and grandmother, she was not only threatened and attacked, but was also at the mercy of her husband’s control over her life. The court heard that, on the day of the killing, Miles Naslund hurled wrenches at his wife and threw the dinner she had made and the place settings to the floor.

One of Ms. Naslund’s three sons, Wesley, explained the almost three decades of violence and cruel control his mother had endured in an interview with the Edmonton Journal’s Jonny Wakefield. She had tried to leave, he said, but her husband threatened to kill her if she did.

“Nothing worked. And I believe at the end, when it happened, I believe that my mother was – I could tell she wasn’t mom no more,” he told the newspaper. “She was empty, she was blank. At times, you’d look at her and you’d swear her eyes were hollow.”

He said he didn’t believe his mother’s actions were right. “However, I believe there is a certain level of justification to why the murder happened.”

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It’s not only the justice system that has a difficult time understanding the trauma involved for victims of abusive relationships. Harmful myths abound in the public, too. For example, why couldn’t she just leave? That’s possibly the most pernicious belief – one that is easily countered when you examine the victim’s reality. Often they can’t leave because they have children or nowhere to go. It may be financially impossible. Women’s shelters are scarce in rural settings, and the ones that do exist are full to bursting.

And then there is the real possibility of even greater harm for a woman fleeing an abusive relationship. The point of departure is known to be the most dangerous time and is a common factor among intimate partner homicides. When Ms. Naslund told Wesley that she believed her life would be in danger if she left, it was true.

The whole criminal justice system needs a better understanding of the trauma abused women live with and the shadow it casts over their lives. There was a recent opportunity for this to happen, but it was squandered. Advocates wanted Bill C-3, which calls for judges to receive sexual-assault education, to include training around family violence as well. Unfortunately, when the bill passed in a watered-down form, there was no provision for domestic violence education in it.

Many lawyers and judges do exhibit a nuanced and empathetic understanding of the issue of intimate partner violence, Prof. Sheehy said. “But there remain pockets of the Canadian justice system that continue to underestimate the serious impacts of men’s violence on their partners and the barriers to escape – and to see husband killing as particularly heinous. We need a great deal of education around coercive control, practised nearly exclusively by men, and the extreme risks of femicide that men who engage in it pose for their partners and kids.”

Earlier this year, Ms. Naslund launched a judicial appeal of her sentence. We can only hope that, at the end of the process, justice is finally served.

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