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Scales of justice

At the heart of a terrorized woman's attempt to hire a hit man in Nova Scotia is a cry for help that went unheeded by police. Nicole Ryan, a teacher in Digby, had been abused and threatened for years by her gun-owning husband, but when she finally went to the police, believing she and her daughter were going to be killed, she was turned away by the RCMP, according to evidence accepted by the trial judge, and by the province's highest court.

Yet later the RCMP, having heard that this same woman was trying to hire a killer, somehow had the resources to conduct a sting operation. Wouldn't it have been better to protect the woman in the first place?

"We don't get involved in civil matters. It's a family dispute," Ms. Ryan quoted the police as telling her, around the fall of 2007. "One police officer actually said, in the entrance way of the RCMP station, 'Well, phone the judge.'"

Nine times she went to the police, evidence accepted at her trial showed. She spoke to "victim services" of the provincial justice department an additional 11 times. And when, on a Mountie's recommendation, she obtained a peace bond, she accepted the advice of a victims' services employee that the bond was useless, and she never sought to enforce its terms.

The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal's ruling in this case is truly hair-raising. Her husband, Michael Ryan, weighing 230 pounds to her 115, put a hand around her throat once a week during most of the years they were together. He was a soldier in the Canadian military until 2004. He held a shotgun to her head at least four times. He killed the family dog, and a neighbour's dog.

It would be easy (and wrong) to judge her for staying with such a brute. Her explanation was that she felt sorry for him, felt that if shown love and compassion he would change; and over time, she became more and more isolated, until she felt trapped 24 hours a day. "I will destroy you," he said again and again.

It's not acceptable for people to be hiring hit men to settle their problems. That is not the way Canadians settle things. But it would never have come to that if the RCMP had done a better job of protecting a terrorized woman.