'Women who kill to survive': court hears appeal from Helen Naslund, sentenced to 18 years for killing abusive husband

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An Alberta grandmother convicted of killing her abusive husband is asking the province’s appeal court to reduce her 18-year prison sentence, arguing it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of violence against women.

On Tuesday, the Alberta Court of Appeal will hear the case of 56-year-old Helen Doris Naslund, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter last year for killing her husband Miles. Experts say her sentence is one of the longest in Canadian history for a “battered woman” case.

Naslund admitted to shooting Miles, her husband of 27 years, in the back of the head while he slept in their farmhouse near Holden on Sept. 5, 2011. Both the Crown and the sentencing judge agreed that Naslund’s actions were the culmination of years of abuse. According to an agreed statement of facts, on the day before the killing, an intoxicated Miles threw wrenches at Helen, ordered her around with a gun, and threw Sunday dinner to the floor, declaring it was not fit for a dog.

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Mona Duckett, Naslund’s lawyer, argues that the 18-year sentence is a “miscarriage of justice” that brings the courts into disrepute. She said Naslund’s sentence outstrips every other battered woman case she could find — as well as many cases in which men kill their intimate partners.

“It is about the gendered lens through which the justice system continues to evaluate the conduct of battered women who kill to survive,” Duckett writes.

Helen Naslund and her son Neil surrendered to RCMP on Sept. 7, 2017, after a police search of the family farm near Holden. In the aftermath of the killing, Helen and Neil had loaded Miles’ body into a truck box, drilled it full of holes and sank it in a dugout. They crushed and buried Miles’ car using a backhoe rented from Helen’s job at an equipment shop, and reported him missing to police. They invented a cover story, implying Miles was suicidal or in with the wrong crowd.

Helen and Neil Naslund were originally charged with first-degree murder. As a result of a plea bargain with the Crown, she was allowed to plead guilty to manslaughter on the condition she accept the 18-year sentence. Neil was given a three-year sentence for offering indignity to human remains. Justice Sterling Sanderman accepted the joint-submission from Crown and defence on Oct. 30, 2020, opining: “This was a callous, cowardly act on a vulnerable victim in his own home … by a partner.”

Duckett argues the plea bargain with the Crown was “coercive,” giving Naslund the option of accepting an “unduly harsh” offer or risking life in prison.

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Helen Naslund, seen in 2015, was sentenced to 18 years for shooting her husband twice in the head and disposing his body in a dugout.
Helen Naslund, seen in 2015, was sentenced to 18 years for shooting her husband twice in the head and disposing his body in a dugout.

“Women charged with homicide for killing their abusers face ‘irresistible forces to plead guilty’ to a reduced charge,” Duckett writes. She added that prosecutors who are prepared to accept a guilty plea to manslaughter should consider indicting only on that charge “to avoid an equivocal plea where there is some evidence supporting a defence such as self-defence.”

Duckett also criticized Sanderman’s characterization of Naslund as a woman who had “other options” for dealing with her marital problems. Duckett notes Naslund tried to leave Miles on multiple occasions but feared for her own safety and the safety of her children. She was depressed, suffered from “learned helplessness” and attempted suicide on multiple occasions.

“Myths still pervade the justice system,” Duckett wrote. “Ms. Naslund was told by the sentencing judge that ‘other options (were) open’ and that she ‘(hadn’t) been able to deal with the problems in (her) life.’ The agreed facts (explain) her inability to leave.”

As part of Naslund’s appeal, Duckett is seeking to introduce new evidence from University of Ottawa Prof. Elizabeth Sheehy, who studies violence against women, as well as Matthew Behrens, a community advocate and writer who organized a petition and letter-writing campaign protesting the sentence. Naslund has received letters of support from women’s shelters across the country, as well as from a gender equality organization in Afghanistan.

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The farm where Helen Naslund shot her husband Miles Naslund, seen in Beaver County, on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020.
The farm where Helen Naslund shot her husband Miles Naslund, seen in Beaver County, on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. Photo by Ian Kucerak /Postmedia

‘As close to murder as you can get’

Jason Russell, a lawyer for the Crown, argues the court of appeal should leave the sentence be.

He said Sanderman was right to accept the sentencing recommendation, arguing that the “very high standard for rejecting a joint submission is not met.”

“Although the appellant (Naslund) pleaded to manslaughter, this case is as close to murder as you can get,” Russell writes. “Regardless of the abuse, the appellant committed an inexcusable, violent act … the sentence imposed is well within the range of sentences for near-murder manslaughter.”

A three-judge court of appeal panel is expected to hear the case Tuesday and deliver its decision on a later date.

More to come. 

jwakefield@postmedia.com

twitter.com/jonnywakefield

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