Alberta top court slashes prison sentence for woman who killed abusive husband

·4 min read
Helen Naslund, shown here in an undated photo with a newborn grandson, is serving a nine-year manslaughter sentence after the Alberta Court of Appeal reduced her sentence Wednesday.  (Women Who Choose to Live/Facebook - image credit)
Helen Naslund, shown here in an undated photo with a newborn grandson, is serving a nine-year manslaughter sentence after the Alberta Court of Appeal reduced her sentence Wednesday. (Women Who Choose to Live/Facebook - image credit)

The Alberta Court of Appeal has slashed the prison sentence of a women who shot and killed her abusive husband in 2011, calling the original 18-year term a result of "outdated thinking."

Helen Naslund, a grandmother of eight, may be able to apply for parole by the end of 2022 after the court reduced her sentence for manslaughter to nine years.

Naslund admitted that she shot her abusive husband, Miles Naslund, in the back of the head while he was sleeping in September 2011. She and her sons concealed the body and the crime stayed secret for six years.

After lengthy negotiations between the Crown and her lawyer, Naslund pleaded guilty in March 2020 to manslaughter. In October 2020, the judge agreed to the joint sentencing submission of 18 years.

In a majority decision filed Wednesday, Justice Sheila Greckol called the sentence unduly harsh because it failed to take into account Naslund's 27-year abusive marriage and disregards battered woman syndrome.

"In those rare cases where the proposed sentence would bring the administration of justice into disrepute or would be contrary to the public interest, they should not be accepted," Greckol wrote.

"This is one such case."

Greckol criticized the trial lawyers for even suggesting such a lengthy sentence without case law to back it up and Court of Queen's Bench Justice Sterling Sanderman for accepting it.

University of Alberta
University of Alberta

"Counsel … failed to fully explain to the sentencing judge how they arrived at a sentence markedly harsher than those imposed in similar cases," Greckol wrote. "I find that the sentencing judge applied the wrong test in assessing the propriety of the joint submission."

Greckol cited numerous Canadian cases involving battered women who killed their partners. Their manslaughter sentences ranged from a suspended sentence to eight years.

During sentencing, Sanderman called the shooting "a callous, cowardly act on a vulnerable victim in his own home."

Sanderman suggested Naslund could have left or found other options besides shooting her husband.

"It is impermissible and outdated thinking to suggest that women who are unable to leave situations of domestic violence remain by choice," Greckol wrote.

"These observations of the sentencing judge overlook the decades during which Ms. Naslund was vulnerable and at risk in her own home."

Greckol suggested that Alberta courts need to adjust their approach to battered-women cases.

"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," she wrote.

Naslund 'incredibly grateful'

Naslund has been in custody at the Edmonton Institution for Women since October 2020.

In an email through her lawyer, Naslund expressed her gratitude.

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"I am incredibly grateful to the justices who reduced my sentence and to the many people in Canada and elsewhere who supported me through this difficult experience," Naslund said.

"I hope that other women can benefit from the court's recognition of the terrible situation in which battered women find themselves."

Naslund's youngest son Neil Naslund told CBC News in a text message he is relieved by the decision.

"She will get to spend more time involved in her grandkids' lives and have the chance to see her very senior father before he passes, and for that I'm very happy," he wrote.

Naslund doesn't think his mother should have ever been sent to prison.

"I do think that she deserves to come home now," he said.

Dissenting opinion

While Greckol was supported by Justice Kevin Feehan, Justice Thomas Wakeling wrote a dissenting opinion dismissing Naslund's sentence appeal.

He rejected a petition signed by 25,000 Canadians who objected to the lengthy sentence and ruled that there was no medical evidence to support the battered woman syndrome claim.

Wakeling believes if the case had gone to trial, Naslund likely would have been found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 18 to 20 years.

"This is not a battered woman syndrome case," Wakeling wrote. "I am satisfied that the notional reasonable observer would conclude that Ms. Naslund has no good reason to complain about this bargain.

"It has probably saved her many years of prison time."

Matthew Behrens, spokesperson for Women Who Choose to Live, the group that launched the petition, said he found the decision to be "a complete indictment of the judicial system when it comes to dealing with women who have survived abuse."

"There's a sense of relief that the sentence has been reduced by 50 per cent but there's also a sense of sadness because most of Helen's family that I've spoken with believe Helen should not do another day behind bars," he said.

The Alberta Crown now has 60 days to decide if it will file a leave application to the Supreme Court of Canada.

A spokesperson said the Crown is reviewing the decision to determine what steps, if any, will be taken.

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