Alberta battered woman syndrome case headed to Supreme Court

The Alberta Court of Appeal has dismissed Debbie Doonanco's appeal of her second-degree murder conviction in a majority decision. Because there was a dissenting opinion, the retired school teacher can automatically file notice of appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Convicted murderer Debbie Doonanco loses at Alberta appeal court in split decision

Court sketch of Debbie Doonanco testifying at her second-degree murder trial in 2016. (Ivory Rose Hrabec)

An Alberta woman who claims she killed her partner in self-defence has lost a bid to overturn her conviction.

Her lawyer now plans to take the case to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Debbie Doonanco was found guilty by a jury in St. Paul, Alta., in November 2016 of the second-degree murder of Kevin Feland.

The retired school teacher admitted at her trial that she shot Feland twice in the chest in May 2014, then set their house on fire. But she insisted that was trying to save her own life from an abusive spouse; that it was "kill or be killed."

She was sentenced in January 2017 to life in prison with no chance of parole for 13 years.

The following month, she filed a notice of appeal and was granted bail.

This week, the Court of Appeal of Alberta issued a split decision. Two justices dismissed the appeal and gave Doonanco two weeks to turn herself in and resume serving a life sentence. A third justice disagreed, and in a minority opinion ruled the conviction should be set aside and a new trial ordered.

The split decision means Doonanco automatically has the right to take her case to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Defence lawyer Brian Beresh said he plans to file an immediate notice of appeal.

Defence lawyer Brian Beresh plans to file immediate notice of appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. (CBC)

"I'm most disappointed with the findings by the majority," Beresh told CBC News. "I've discussed them with my client and we feel that a number of errors were made and that this case will be making its way to the Supreme Court of Canada immediately."

Beresh said he also plans to take immediate steps to keep his client out of prison.

"We'll be seeking bail for our client pending the hearing of the appeal," Beresh said. "And I hope that that time [two weeks] was given so that we could arrange the matter of bail within it. And we're certainly going to try to do that."

The defence lawyer said Doonanco and her family were "devastated" by the appeal court decision.

Defence alleges miscarriage of justice at trial

Doonanco claimed at trial that she was the victim of battered woman syndrome (BWS) and was also in a state of depression when she shot and killed Feland.

Her claims were bolstered by testimony from a defence expert witness. Lenore Walker is a Florida forensic psychologist who literally wrote the book on BWS. She testified Doonanco was suffering from BWS that was made "much worse" because she was also dealing with depression.

The Glendon, Alta., house belonging to Debbie Doonanco, where Kevin Feland's body was found on May 25, 2014. (Court exhibit)

After Walker finished testifying and the defence closed its case, the Crown served notice it wanted to call a rebuttal expert.

Dr. Graham Glancy ultimately told the court he did not believe Doonanco was suffering from BWS when she killed Feland.

The appeal court decision issued this week noted the Crown did not provide a summary of Glancy's opinion while the defence expert was still on the stand. That meant Walker was not asked for her opinion on the conclusions Glancy reached.  

The majority decision concluded the defence case did not suffer because Glancy was allowed to testify. But Justice Myra Bielby disagreed.

"The defence was seriously disadvantaged," Bielby wrote. "I conclude that the Crown compromised the fairness of Ms. Doonanco's trial. This situation resulted in an unfair trial for which the only effective remedy is to set aside the convictions and order a new trial."

Beresh said he hopes the Supreme Court will overturn the conviction and either order a new trial or acquit Doonanco.


Janice Johnston is an award-winning journalist in Edmonton who has covered the courts and crime for more than two decades. You can reach her at janice.johnston@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @cbcjanjohnston