Abused N.S. woman at centre of Supreme Court case ready to move on
A battered wife from Nova Scotia who tried to hire a hit man to kill her husband says she was "relieved" when Canada's highest court stayed her case on Friday and is looking forward to putting the ordeal behind her.
Nicole Ryan says she hopes to move on with her life and reconnect with her daughter, whom she has not seen since her trial in 2009.
"I'd like to say thanks to the Elizabeth Fry Society. Hopefully they will be able to help me to re-establish contact with her," said Ryan, speaking alongside her lawyer on Friday afternoon.
Ryan, a school teacher, said she has no information on her daughter's whereabouts and has not heard from her in recent years. She said the girl -- who currently lives with her former husband -- will turn 13 in March.
When asked what she would like to say to her daughter, she said: "I'd like to keep that private, if that's okay."
Earlier in the day, the Supreme Court of Canada overturned Ryan's acquittal but also stayed the case, meaning there will be no retrial and her long legal nightmare is over.
Ryan’s lawyer, Joel Pink, said even though acquittal wasn't upheld, the defence's goals were still achieved.
"The end result of the stay is she, in fact, has not technically been found guilty. The end result is she has no criminal record and or no criminal conviction," Pink told reporters.
The Nova Scotia Supreme Court had acquitted Ryan in 2009 on charges of counselling to commit murder after she claimed duress under the so-called battered woman's defence. That decision was then upheld by the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal, but prosecutors pursued the case all the way to the country's highest court.
The Supreme Court ruled Friday the defence’s duress argument was incorrect, and therefore Ryan’s earlier acquittal couldn't stand.
"The reason for the court's decision was because they say her legal team used the wrong defence. She says she was under duress and that's why she tried to hire a hit man to kill her husband. The court says duress is an incorrect defence because it requires an innocent third-party victim," said CTV's Mercedes Stephenson, reporting from the court in Ottawa.
The court issued a clarification on the definition of the duress defence, saying it can only be used if a defendant was forced to commit a crime against a third party, by another person.
"If someone holds a gun to your head and says 'steal that laptop,' you can argue you stole the laptop under duress,” Stephenson explained. “In this situation there was no third person who was an innocent victim … so duress was the wrong argument to use.”
The Supreme Court justices were unanimous in their ruling that the duress argument was incorrect. And all but one of the nine justices agreed to stay the proceedings in the case.
The justice who disagreed with the stay argued that the Crown should have the power to decide whether to launch a retrial, not the court. However, in the end the court said it wouldn't be fair to put Ryan through another trial.
Ryan had tried at least nine times to get police protection from her estranged husband, Michael, an ex-soldier who began showing up at their daughter's school and once drove Ryan and her daughter to a remote wooded area and told them that was where he planned to bury their bodies.
The trial judge described the husband as carrying out a "reign of terror" over Ryan and her daughter.
The RCMP had carried out a sting operation against Ryan and arrested her when she offered $25,000 to an undercover officer -- posing as a hit man -- to kill Michael.
The Supreme Court said it was disquieting that the RCMP launched a sting operation against Ryan, rather than help the woman who had repeatedly reached out to police for protection.
CTV legal analyst Steven Skurka said it was a complicated case, largely due to the fact Ryan tried to hire someone to kill her husband rather than do it herself.
If the Supreme Court had upheld the earlier rulings, Skurka said, it would have essentially been "condoning the use of contract killers to effect the death of someone."
Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said Ryan was simply protecting herself because police and authorities failed to do so.
"The court had an opportunity here to assist abused women. Our fear is this will not necessarily assist abused women. ...They have acknowledged Miss Ryan was living under a reign of terror, yet they have not said she was entitled to defend herself clearly."
According to The Canadian Press, Ryan's former husband and his girlfriend now have the daughter Ryan once sought to protect, and have not been heard from in some time.
In a statement, the RCMP said it will review the court's comments insisting they take matters of domestic violence seriously.
'Battered wife syndrome'
Some observers have suggested the Friday decision could reshape the legal landscape for battered women that was established with a landmark 1990 judgment. In that case, Manitoba woman Angelique Lavallee was acquitted of killing her boyfriend Kevin (Rooster) Rust. Lavallee shot Rust in the head with a rifle as he walked away from her following a beating.
Lavallee was acquitted by a jury, but the Crown appealed the decision all the way to the Supreme Court, which eventually upheld the original acquittal, thereby recognizing "battered wife syndrome" as a legitimate defence to murder.
Prior to the ruling, under the letter of the law, murder was only justified if the defendant did so with imminent and reasonable fear of "death or grievous bodily harm."
Madam Justice Bertha Wilson, at the time, said the "imminence" requirement makes sense in most cases, but special circumstances are at plan when it comes to abused women. Though Rust was walking away from Lavallee when she shot him, the years of abuse and expectation of violence that Lavallee had could be likened to the threat of an upraised knife or a pointed gun.
"Given the relational context in which the violence occurs, the mental state of an accused at the vital moment she pulls the trigger cannot be understood except in terms of the cumulative effect of months or years of brutality (which) ... led to feelings of escalating terror on the part of the appellant," Wilson said in the 1990 ruling, as cited in a Government of Canada parliamentary research document.