Edmonton

Woman on trial for murder had battered wife syndrome, lawyer says

Debbie Doonanco once taught students in kindergarten, Grade 1 and Grade 2. Now the retired teacher is on trial in St. Paul, Alberta for the second degree murder of her common-law husband.

Debbie Doonanco claims she killed abusive partner in self-defence

Debbie Doonanco's home in Glendon, Alta., where she shot Kevin Feland to death in May 2014. (Court exhibit)

Debbie Doonanco used to teach students in kindergarten, Grade 1 and Grade 2.  

Now the retired teacher is on trial in St. Paul, Alta., for the second-degree murder of her common-law husband.

The 53-year-old from the tiny village of Glendon, 230 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, is also charged with arson, accused of setting fire to Kevin Feland's remains.  

While she admits to the crimes, Doonanco has pleaded not guilty.

Through her lawyer, Doonanco is claiming self defence. She will argue she shot Feland twice in the chest on a Sunday morning in May 2014 in order to save her own life.  

A photo of Debbie Doonanco taken by RCMP after she was arrested. (Court exhibit)
The jury was told that after years of abuse, she killed Feland to protect herself and her parents.

Then she set fire to the living room of her house "to keep him from attacking her again," court heard.

Defence lawyer Brian Beresh said he will prove Doonanco suffered from battered wife syndrome. Later in the trial, Beresh plans to call Doonanco to testify in her own defence.

He also plans to call a forensic psychologist from Florida who he described as the leading North American expert on battered wife syndrome.

The jury for the five-week trial is made up of eight men and four women plus two alternates.  

They are being told two entirely different versions of the same event.

Victim 'aggressive and violent person'

"There was no legal justification for her taking his life in the circumstances," Crown prosecutor Dallas Sopko told the jury in his opening address.  

Sopko admitted the victim was "an aggressive and violent person" who was abusive to his past partners.

However, Sopko said there is "no reliable evidence of significant violence" between Doonanco and Feland in the months leading up to his death.  

Sopko also revealed the 44-year-old victim was a crack cocaine addict. But he urged the jury to keep an open mind and "not judge a book by its cover."

"The fact that he struggled with drug addiction and had a violent past does not mean he deserved to die," Sopko said.  

Troubled, turbulent relationship

Feland and Doonanco met in 1988, well after both of them had finished school. Even though they were both born and raised in Glendon, they did not attend school together as she was six years older.  

Doonanco's lawyer said there were warning signs before the couple married in 1996.

He told the jury about a time when Feland forced her out of the house into the bush, then attacked her with a stick and "beat her on the back and the legs."  

Beresh said shortly after the marriage the violence started again, with "slapping, kicking and hitting."  

"During that marriage, she was struck by a TV remote control, a beer glass full of clam juice and food."  

Doonanco finally had enough when she discovered Feland was having an affair, and eventually the couple got a divorce after only three years of marriage.  

Beresh told the jury he will call two women who were involved in relationships with Feland over the next 13 years who will testify he was also abusive towards them.  

Couple reunited in late 2012

In June 2012, Doonanco was diagnosed with "a serious bout of depression." Beresh said Feland manipulated her mental state "as a way to get back into the house."

Feland allegedly told her, "I can make you happy," Beresh said. "He insisted this time he was changed. He did not abuse women anymore. He promised to stop using illicit drugs."  

Doonanco allowed him to move back into her house in December 2012.

"For the first while, he tried to keep the promises," Beresh said. "Problem was, the drugs continued. The abuse continued. The violence toward her started again."  

She tried to convince him to leave but he refused, allegedly telling her, "I'm going to stay here. You can't throw me out. I'm going to make your life a living hell."

Last week of Kevin Feland's life

Beresh said by May 2014, Feland was using cocaine daily, unable to work because of his drug habit.

He claimed Feland warned Doonanco that if she ever reported the abuse or caused any problems, he would kill her and her parents, who lived nearby.

Feland was no longer sharing a bedroom with Doonanco as he slept on the couch.  

According to Beresh, at 2 a.m. on the morning of May 25, 2014, Feland loaded a gun and shot a hole in the floor to scare Doonanco. He later he told her, "It's time to die."  

Beresh said Doonanco feared a murder suicide was going to play out in front of her. So she shot him twice in the chest while he lay on the couch, then set fire to the area around the body and ran out of the house.

During the 911 call played for the jury, Doonanco is sobbing, hysterical and mostly incoherent.  

"My husband's on fire. He's in the living room. I think he's dead," she said in a high-pitched, breathless voice.  

The operator said, "Take a breath. Talk to me."

Doonanco wailed, "I need my mom."

Then between sobs added, "Oh my God. I think Kevin's dead. He was in the living room. We weren't sleeping together. He was doing drugs all night. Help me!  Help me!"

First witnesses on scene

The jury heard from a number of witnesses who arrived at Doonanco's home when they spotted smoke coming from the house.  

They said the accused killer was pacing back and forth on her front lawn.  

Next-door neighbour Chad Doble testified, "She was very distraught. Shook up. Hysterical, I guess you could say."  

But the witnesses said Doonanco made it sound as though Feland could still be alive inside the burning house and that he had started the fire by doing drugs all night then "kicking over a torch."

Another neighbour testified it seemed like Doonanco was having a panic attack when she told her Feland "had threatened her life with a gun," and that "she was afraid of him."

An autopsy report entered as an exhibit revealed the presence of cocaine in Feland's system.  

The medical examiner also believes Feland was no longer breathing when his body was set on fire.

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