Gunpowder and lead

In 2011,  Helen Naslund killed her husband after almost 30 years of being subjected to his extreme abuse. The Naslunds were farmers and, as is often the case with family farms, Helen also worked off the farm to increase the family’s income.

Miles Naslund was a drunk, violent man, as reported by their children, neighbours and others in the community. He regularly threatened her and their sons with firearms, threw furniture and household items at her, screamed at her and controlled her activities. If Miles didn’t like what Helen prepared for dinner, he threw it at her and demanded that she make another meal. The three children, all boys, frequently watched their father physically assault their mother and were direct victims of his abuse as well.

Miles socially isolated Helen: her parents only visited the family once a year, and neighbours stopped visiting entirely. Once a competitive rodeo barrel racer, Helen eventually gave it up, got rid of her horses and stopped leaving the house other than to go to work, because her husband just made it too difficult.

A loaded .357 Magnum lived on the coffee table beside Miles’ favourite arm chair and, according to the Naslund’s oldest son, his father would pick it up, cocking and uncocking it, whenever someone annoyed him.

Helen tried to leave the marriage at least once, but Miles told her that he would kill her if she did. She also attempted suicide several times. On Labour Day weekend 2011, after a few days of relentless and escalating abuse by Miles, she shot him while he slept. Later that weekend, she and one of her sons, Neil, buried Miles’ car and put his body in a large tool box, which they dumped into a pond on the farm. They then reported Miles missing.

In 2017, one of the sons told people what had happened, and Helen and Neil were charged with first degree murder. Helen pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Goodbye Miles

Retired Ottawa University law professor Elizabeth Sheehy examined 91 cases of women in Canada who killed their abusive partners between 1990 and 2005. Forty-nine of them, like Helen Naslund, pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Helen’s sentence was one of the longest imposed an on abused woman; most of those 49 women received sentences of two years or less.

There are a lot of questions to be asked about Helen’s case. Why did her lawyer not raise battered women’s syndrome during the trial? Why did he not introduce evidence about the history of abuse at the sentencing phase, but rather entered into a joint submission with the Crown for an 18-year sentence?

The judge described Helen’s actions as “a callous, cowardly act on a vulnerable victim in his own home,” claiming she had other options available to her, rather than seeing her as a vulnerable victim held captive in her own home for almost 30 years.

Commenting on the case, Professor Sheehy points out that the judge saw the use of a firearm as an aggravating factor when determining Helen’s sentence, without looking at who brought guns into the home and whether they had ever been used against her.

Compare Helen’s sentence to two cases where men killed their partners. Saskatchewan’s Nathan Mullen choked his wife to death and, in 2017, he was sentenced to eight years in prison for manslaughter. Five years earlier in Alberta, Allan Shyback was charged with murder for strangling his wife and cementing her into the basement. He was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to seven years imprisonment, which was later increased to 10.

Outdated thinking

After Helen’s sentencing, Sheehy and retired judge Lynn Ratushny co-authored an opinion piece in the Edmonton Journal, in which they called on the Alberta Attorney General to seek an appeal:

“Violence against women and the ensuing corrosive effects on women and children are no longer private matters, but rather systemic ones that require public responses by our justice system.”

In the end, it was Helen who appealed and, last week, the Alberta Court of Appeal overturned the sentence imposed at trial, replacing it with a nine-year sentence, which would allow Helen to apply for parole as early as the end of this year.

In writing the majority decision, Justice Sheila Greckol made the following comments:

“I find that the sentencing judge applied the wrong test in assessing the propriety of the joint submission. . . . It is impermissible and outdated thinking to suggest that women who are unable to leave situations of domestic violence remain by choice. These observations of the sentencing judge overlook the decades during which Ms Naslund was vulnerable and at risk in her own home. . . . It is beyond time for this court to explicitly recognize that cases of battered women killing abusive partners involve unique circumstances that must be considered by the sentencing judge, particularly where battered woman syndrome is involved.”

While this is cause for some celebration, and Justice Greckol is to be commended for her unequivocal comments, it’s hard to find meaningful justice in this story: by the time Helen pulled the trigger in September 2011, it was too late.

I am glad she may be able to leave jail and return to her family much sooner than the original sentence would have allowed, but that’s not justice. Justice requires a society that believes women when they speak out about being abused. It requires legal systems that offer women meaningful options for their safety and that of their children.

Given that we don’t have that society, once Helen killed Miles, she should not have been charged with first degree murder, she should have had legal representation that raised the issue of domestic violence and battered women’s syndrome, and she should have appeared in front of a judge who understood that it was she, not Miles, who was the real victim.

In the absence of justice, women are left to fend for themselves. In the words of Miranda Lambert:

“He slapped my face, and he shook me like a rag doll/Don’t that sound like a real man?/I’m going to show him what little girls are made of/Gunpowder and lead.”

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