The Current

Shortened sentence for Helen Naslund 'highly significant' for abused women: experts

Helen Naslund was sentenced to 18 years for killing her abusive husband in Alberta — but this week, a judge cut that sentence in half. Experts say the decision is a step in the right direction for the law when it comes to cases involving abuse victims.

Naslund’s sentencing for killing abusive husband slashed from 18 years to 9 earlier this week

Helen Naslund in an undated photo with a newborn grandson in hospital. (Women Who Choose to Live/Facebook)

When Helen Naslund pleaded guilty to killing her abusive husband in 2020, she was supposed to serve an 18-year prison sentence as a result. But in a landmark decision earlier this week, Alberta's Court of Appeal reduced her sentence for manslaughter down to nine years.

"This decision forced people to acknowledge that a lifetime of abuse adds up and it affects the way a woman makes decisions," journalist Christina Frangou told The Current

For 27 years, Helen was abused by her husband, Miles Naslund. He'd physically and verbally assault her, accusing her of infidelity and threatening her with violence, including with the guns he had in his collection.

It reached a boiling point for Helen when she shot her husband in the head while he was sleeping in September 2011. Earlier that day, he had criticized the dinner she had prepared for him and thrown cutlery onto the floor in a fit of rage, said Frangou, whose been covering the case.

Helen and her son, Neil, concealed Miles' body in a pond a few kilometres away from the family farm near Holden, Alta. They reported him missing to the police, with Helen suggesting Miles had committed suicide.

The crime was kept secret for six years until another son, Darrell, revealed the secret to a number of people. They in turn contacted RCMP.

Helen pleaded guilty to manslaughter in October 2020, and Neil pleaded guilty to offering an indignity to human remains.

As for why Naslund didn't simply leave her husband, Frangou said "she had poured her blood, sweat and tears into this farm, and I think that's one of the things that people have to think about when they look at this case. 

"This was her home and this was her her life."

Neil told CBC News in 2020 that his mother did try to leave several times but that those attempts always ended with a severe beating.

'Outdated thinking'

In a majority decision filed Wednesday, Alberta Court of Appeal justice Sheila Greckol said the original 18-year sentence was unduly harsh because it failed to take into account Naslund's abusive marriage.

She suggested that Alberta courts need to adjust their approach to cases similar to Naslund's.

"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.

Alberta Court of Appeal Justice Sheila Greckol. (University of Alberta)

Elizabeth Sheehy, author of Defending Battered Women on Trial: Lessons from the Transcripts, said nine years is still a long sentence when compared to sentences other abused women who pleaded to manslaughter have received. 

Nonetheless, she said the slashing of the sentence — which had been agreed to by both defence and crown — is a significant decision.

"The [original] sentence has to cause the reasonable observer to lose confidence in the justice system, or be contrary to the public interest," she said. "So it's a really significant decision both for Helen personally, but also for other abused women who face the criminal justice system."

During the 2020 sentencing, Court of Queen's Bench Justice Sterling Sanderman suggested Naslund could have left or found other options besides shooting her abusive husband. 

But Greckol called the original sentence "outdated thinking" — and Sheehy, who's also a professor emerita of law at the University of Ottawa, agrees.

"It's just completely divorced from the actual reality of trying to leave a violent man," she said. 

[There are] no simple answers for women at all in terms of, you know, planning how to leave.-Jan Reimer

Sheehy said this results in some overlooking the fact that abusers are often highly dangerous individuals, such as in Helen Naslund's case.

"He was engaging in coercive control, which is a major risk factor for intimate partner femicide," she said. "He also had already used escalating violence. He was using a gun … in the house."

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Jan Reimer, the executive director of the Alberta Council of Women's Shelters and former Edmonton mayor, said this isn't rare in abuse cases like Naslund's.

"A key tactic of perpetrators is to isolate women from their family, their friends, their community and exercise that power and control," she said. This makes it difficult for victims to even reach out for assistance.

"You see women hiding in closets, trying to use their cell phone to contact help," she said. "[Abusers are] monitoring their cars now, even on their phones. They're watching every move."

Even if an abuse victim is able to escape, abusers have their ways of getting back in touch with the victim, especially if children are involved.

"Once an abused woman has had children, it's not possible [for her to leave]," Sheehy said. "He will always have contact with those children, and he will always be able to get to her … because the man will have access to those children if she leaves."

Changing mandatory minimum sentences for murder

In a statement to The Current, the office of Minister of Justice David Lametti said in part: "We must continue to work to end gender-based violence and continue to send a clear message to all survivors of sexual assault, domestic abuse and all Canadians that our justice system will serve them fairly and respectfully."

According to Sheehy, part of that work involves changing the mandatory minimum sentences for murder, which she believed would've assisted Naslund in this case. 

"The mandatory minimum sentence for murder makes it a crushing risk to face the possibility of murder, a murder conviction and a mandatory life sentence," she said.

"As long as we have a mandatory minimum sentence for murder, women like Helen Naslund are going to have to undergo extreme pressure to plead guilty to manslaughter, even when they have a valid defence [of] self-defence."

But before things even get to the courts, Reimer said communities need to reach out to victims when signs of domestic violence are evident, rather than turning to victim-blaming or shaming.

"[There are] no simple answers for women at all in terms of planning how to leave. But that's why it's so important for the community as well to take a part in this and be observant, and when violence does occur, to call it out."

Written by Mouhamad Rachini with files from CBC News. Produced by Joana Draghici, Allison Dempster and Ines Colabrese.

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