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Are battered women justified in killing in self-defence? You decide.

The National PostThe Windsor Star and The Ottawa Citizen by Elizabeth Sheehy 17 December 2013 

Are battered women justified in killing their abusers in self-defence — even when those abusers are unconscious? In 1982, after a lengthy murder trial, a Nova Scotia jury of Jane Stafford’s peers effectively said “yes,” and acquitted her of murder.

The 1994 film Life With Billy chronicled the true story of Stafford. She shot her husband Billy while he was passed out, after drinking himself into a state of oblivion. His terrifying violence was so notorious that Staff Sergeant Peter Williamson said at the police station “(s)he deserves a medal. She probably saved a couple of our officers’ lives. He always had loaded guns. I’m sure we would have gone out there one day and … (he would have) shot one of us.”

Eight years later, our highest court affirmed that self-defence is available to battered women even when their abusers pose no imminent threat. Angelique Lyn Lavallee had shot her partner in the back as he left the room, after threatening that she would “get it later.” In its 1990 ruling, the Supreme Court of Canada said that Lavallee was “justified” in acting in self-defence and restored her jury acquittal. Relying on U.S. authority, Justice Bertha Wilson explained that if we required battered women to wait for the “uplifted knife,” we would be condemning them to “murder by instalment.”

The Court also said that “Battered Woman Syndrome” evidence is admissible to support self-defence and to rebut stereotypes and misconceptions — to answer the question “why didn’t she leave?” Many Canadians remain unaware of the tremendous barriers to “just leaving” for battered women, chronicled in tragic and depressing detail in a multitude of trials.

My book, Defending Battered Women on Trial (UBC Press, 2013), uses transcripts from the civil trial of Bonnie Mooney to show readers what happened when she turned to police and the courts to try to escape Roland Kruska. Women like Bonnie face an escalated risk — nine times, to be exact — of being murdered when they try to walk away from such men. There are no guarantees of police protection or appropriate criminal justice response, as her case sadly illustrates.

In fact, a woman is killed every six days in Canada by her male partner or former partner. Family courts cannot be relied upon to keep batterers away from women’s children — far from it. Welfare rates and policies force women back into the arms of abusers, our shelters turn away women and children every day in this country, and the independent women’s movement — the most important force worldwide in reducing women’s inequality and vulnerability to male violence — is under attack.

I would never advocate homicide and I don’t in my book. Instead, I ask readers to judge for themselves. Read the transcripts of battered women’s murder trials. See the evidence and the arguments advanced by prosecutors and defence lawyers. Consider the woman’s options, in real life, not those imagined by people who are not walking in their shoes. I tell the stories of 11 women in my book — 10 who killed abusive men — so that ordinary Canadians do not have to rely on the “opinions” of advocates, columnists or academics.

Reading court transcripts moved me to urge prosecutors to charge such women with manslaughter rather than murder. Because among the 91 women whose cases I found, only four were convicted of murder. Seven were either not charged or had their charges withdrawn; 22 were acquitted; and the rest either pleaded guilty to or were convicted of manslaughter, and two pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder.

Is it an appropriate expenditure of taxpayer dollars to prosecute battered women at full tilt, in light of the compassionate response of Canadian judges and jurors who hear all the evidence? Is it a just response, for battered women and their children, who have already experienced captivity and for whom testifying at trial is a “trial by ordeal?”

That’s for those who read my book to decide for themselves.

Elizabeth Sheehy is a law professor a the University of Ottawa.