In Her Defence – Episode 7: Seemed Like a Loser



E-mail : *

It was sometime around the um everything was in court and I just remember uh receiving calls I don’t know if I saw it first or somebody else I know I received a number of calls and messages emails that sort of thing from folks I’d worked with over the years on these issues um

Saying you know basically what what the you know what is going on here how could someone enter a plea deal and get 18 years for manslaughter in a situation of where it was clear there was violence against women this is Kim Pate she’s a lawyer and a senator she helped launch the national

Self-defense review in 1997 which examined convictions and sentences of women in Canada who’d killed abusive men she’s done a lot of work for women in prison so she called Helen I did want to let her know and I was uh upfront right away that I thought

She should appeal I didn’t think what uh I didn’t know the circumstances obviously of her particular case I was quite certain the whole story probably hadn’t been told and you know what I recognized from so many of the women that I’ve worked with that I’ve walked

With that you know some of whom it’s been you know my friends family members others is that the internalizing of the responsibility for this the um reluctance to speak about it the shame that they were involved in something the belief that what they did was wrong

Even if they had a legal defense that internalization came through in terms of her reluctance to do anything except try to figure out how to get through her sentence and get out but eventually Helen did decide to appeal her sentence Kim started phoning lawyers and judges she knew in Alberta asking who

They would hire if they needed a lawyer they all said Mona Ducket but there was one big problem with the appeal yeah on the face of it it seemed like a loser I’m Janna Pruden and this is in her defense episode 7 seemed like a Loser as the public outcry against Helen sentence grew Matthew Barons was thinking about how it could be used to help Helen my name is Matthew Barons and I am part of a group called women who choose to live which works with women who are criminalized and punished for surviving male violence against women

Matthew is an activist he told me his wakeup call was the 1989 massacre at a Cole poly technique in Montreal when 14 women were killed in a mass shooting by a man screaming you are all feminists Matthew wrote to Helen in prison and they started talking on the

Phone and then I said by the way Helen you know there are so many women including survivors who would like to reach out to you are you okay if they write letters to you and within a few months we had uh two dozen people who had committed to writing every couple of

Weeks to Helen and over the course of six eight months I think we had 70 or 80 people who were writing regularly to Helen and that that gave her a sense of support and community and it also gave her something to do to deal with the very long evening hours so as that

Campaign of personal support grew I think it gave her a sense that maybe there is there is hope maybe we can turn this thing around he started an online petition opposing Helen’s sentence it quickly swelled to almost 30,000 names a lot of the comments are like this one

From Toronto she has been abused long enough already this judge did not understand the impact of 30 years of horrifying domestic violence her sentence should be drastically reduced she acted in self-defense she is being revictimized where is the Justice in that there’s just hundreds of these comments here’s a few

More no woman should have to live with abuse misogyny in the court system is rampant end violence against women women who defend themselves against domestic violence abusers should not be in jail gender violence is pervasive in Canada and if a woman fights back the legal system victimizes her again this must

Stop this is a travesty this is horrendously wrong this was self-defense women have a moral and ethical right to defend themselves and their children from abuse Helen nasland is not a criminal she is a Survivor Justice for Helen is justice for all women to be able to mail these comments

To Helen and there she is facing down 18 years and she’s seeing these comments as anyone who’s ever met Helen knows she is the most shy retiring person she doesn’t want anybody to have to go out of their way to do anything for her and suddenly

Perhaps for the first time in her life apart from a few isolated examples she has people she’s never met coming forward and saying we are with you I cannot begin to imagine the impact that has on someone in Helen’s shoes when she is sitting in her cell at nighttime at

The Edmonton Institution for Women some people posted about Helen’s case on social media using the hash stand withth Helen a woman woman’s prayer circle in Edmonton started praying every day to have Helen’s sentence reduced Elizabeth sheii co-wrote an editorial detailing the ways the system itself had failed

Helen so first off you know a woman in her position is not really in an equal bargaining position to bargain with the crown the the scales are tipped against her and you know lots of women will take 5 years or 10 years to avoid that Prospect of both the public human iation

Of a murder trial and having to expose everything that happened to them and then the prospect of being incarcerated for the rest of their lives and separated from their kids so you know there’s a huge pressure to take a guilty plea which Helen clearly experienced in Helen’s case that

Pressure was exacerbated by the fact that her son was also charged with first deegree murder and so her pressure the pressure on her to take to take a manslaughter verdict and get her son out from under a potential life sentence must have been enormous and irresistible for her so that’s

Another thing that went wrong and then of course we have a defense lawyer who didn’t raise or insist on um Helen’s sentence being mitigated on the basis of the battering and abuse that she experienced over several decades and then we have a crown who’s I think f quite justified in terms

Of seeking this kind of 18-year sentence and then we have a judge who’s not really second guessing or carefully examining the facts before him but is instead accepting the deal that’s offered by Crown and defense all the attention was overwhelming to Helen but Matthew wasn’t surprised sometimes you Lance a boil and

Then everything comes out and and I think I think in this case um the the boil of the Canadian justice system had been lanced and then a lot of people had been sucked into it and thrown out of it were suddenly speaking up um and and

Saying I am so tired of this BS I am so tired of this patriarchal crap and I’m going to add my voice to those who are supporting Helen um and it’s it’s symptomatic of the fact that this is a daily reality for millions of women and kids in this

Country after talking to Kim Pate defense lawyer Mona Ducket wanted to help Helen but she wasn’t sure there was much she could do like she said the case seemed like a loser maybe a loser why did you decide to take it on well Helen had nobody else to help her at that

Point it was clear um there were very strong feelings about there being an injustice and uh on the face of it that seemed to be a justifiable criticism and Helen had nothing else there was just no one else who was in a position to help her out so I thought we should do

It Mona Ducket has been a criminal defense lawyer since 1984 there weren’t a lot of women in criminal law when she started but uh being a woman representing women uh allowed me to uh see that these women who were caught on the system were facing issues that the people Prosecuting them or

Trying them or sometimes even defending them may not appreciate the perspective uh as a be it a mother or simply a female person only became clear to me because I was in that position so I could uh in many contexts uh think about ways in which they were impacted by what was happening

Around them that perhaps men would not have thought of Mona had represented women in domestic self-defense cases before in one case a woman who was facing life in prison for first-degree murder in her husband’s death got a year and a half in the community for manslaughter instead in another a woman’s murder

Charge was dropped altogether and in two of the cases the crown agreed to go to trial on the less serious charge of manslaughter taking away what Mona has described as the extortion of a looming murder charge Mona knows how to fight for battered women still she could see why Helen’s plea deal

Happened almost every defense lawyer would say to that client you have to really seriously consider taking a plea to manslaughter unless they are factually innocent like I didn’t do it I was in Tucson at the time then they should be recommending a guilty plead and manslaughter because a trial is always a

Gamble and if you advance a defense uh or if you simply put them to proof you may lose and the loss is going to be the loss of your life and your Liberty in the sense that you can be locked up forever add to that the situation of a woman who

Is uh facing having to run a battered woman syndrome defense in front of a jury they may have zero sympathy for a woman who has um been psychologically impacted by the trauma with which she’s lived there may be issues about public disclosure of information that’s been

Hidden by the family uh by her by others there may be concerns about not being believed and we see that reluctance to talk about it as early as police interviews of women once they’re arrested because usually the police are not interviewing to find out what an individual’s life circumstances are it’s

Usually to get a confession so they want the person to say yeah I shot so and so they don’t often care about what led to it what the person was thinking what the Dynamics were what the relationship background was now again that’s a stereotypical comment on police

Investigations not all are like that but the goal of the interview at that police investigation stage is not to appreciate the Dynamics in the relationship and that doesn’t just impact what she says at the interview it impacts her going forward in the system because she has seen that those

Responsible for the investigation don’t care or don’t believe or that it’s not relevant Mona argued Helen’s case before a panel of three judges at the Alberta Court of Appeal in June 2021 she said the judge and Crown had failed to adequately consider the abuse Helen suffered and that some of the

Comments the judge made in court show that myths about Abused women are still pervasive in the justice system Mona also said Helen faced irresistible forces to plead guilty knowing that turning down the plea bargain risked life in prison she said the judge shouldn’t have accepted the deal but the most powerful argument Mona

Had was the Public’s outrage there was this ground swell of support which uh was not just support for Helen but recognition of her perspective as a battered woman many of those people I think had they been trying Helen and sat on her jury would have acquitted her knowing this

Mona decided to appeal on the grounds that Helen’s 18-year sentence was contrary to the public interest and brought the administration of justice into disrepute those are the legal terms what it means is that the sentence was so unfair it made everyday people lose faith in the justice system

To make that argument Mona included pages of the petition that Matthew started Elizabeth she’s newspaper editorial and letters from experts one letter was from the executive director of the women’s shelter in cam Ro Alberta the closest shelter to where Helen lived she wrote why is it that in rural

Alberta where resources are scarce do we expect women’s safety to depend on how fast she can run through the past the court of appeal agreed to hear Helen’s case but not everyone wanted to see her sentence overturned the crown prosecution argued against Helen’s appeal and maintained just as had been

Done prosecutor Jason Russell said regardless of the abuse Helen had suffered she’d committed an inexcusable act of violence and said her sentence should stay as it was he told Court quote there are killings in the domestic context that are still murder you might be mad at your spouse

For the abuse you’ve suffered but that doesn’t mean that it’s self-defense and if you kill that person in anger or Revenge it’s Murder I I never for a moment had confidence in a win I received the Crown’s response and uh wasn’t surprised that they defended uh the position they took in the sentence and my senses I was very sort of charged up with uh my own feelings about the indignity while being the

Objective Advocate I have to be but uh I had some confidence during the hearing of the appeal that one member of the panel maybe was seeing things our way after the appeal was argued of course there’s that waiting period what’s going to happen how will they side because of

Course three different judges three different thinkers three different perspectives on the appeal three different reactions to the oral argument that they heard some of which was reflected in the questions that they posed no one knew when the court of appeal would come back with a decision

In prison Helen tried to make the days pass she was used to working hard and she took every job she could she got her high school diploma she wrote to her supporters and pen pals she paced through the yard soaking in the tiny patch of AA and sky on the outside

Helen’s friends and supporters were nervously waiting here’s her boss G Turnbull again I’m just praying every day she’s going to get up that’s why I’m doing this interview otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it yeah because it’s just senseless costing us what 200 Grand a year for her to sit

In there when she could be out here paying you know 20 or 30,000 taxes into into into the society and we’re feeding her to sit in there of course I don’t agree with none of that that’s an anti-government to start with and that’s one thing I don’t

Agree with especially a person like that put a out put a chain on her let her come to work let her go home why would we pay liever in there and that’s my theory right and she seems to really you know she’s a hard worker and she seems to really like working and

Want to work and oh yeah she’s trying to get every job in there she can get just to pass time cuz she’s going nuts you know what I mean she tells me all about her then in January 2022 after considering the case for 6 months the court came back with a

Decision Mona was bracing for a loss but she wasn’t going to stop fighting she was ready to take Helen’s case to the Supreme Court we get notice in advance that the decision’s coming obviously so um I can’t say that at that point we had any level of

Confidence uh about the outcome I think we felt quite strongly at the time that it would be a split decision but split in or not in Helen’s favor was entirely unclear to us and then do you remember when you got the so do you find

Out by email or yes okay yes so we have it half an hour before the public does okay so you know it’s coming you get the email tell me about that moment if you can remember I had Helen call me that morning because I was able to in advance

Give the institution notice that we’d have the decision so uh I think and cold while I had the decision hot on my desk and I just began reading as it happened the way the order or the Judgment was uh justice gre’s decision was first so I

Was able to begin reading to her some of the language that Justice greckle was using and I realized that clock was ticking and Helen didn’t know the answer and she probably wanted to know the answer so I flipped to the back of the judgment and told her what the uh result

Was the appeal court was divided 2 to one the decision was written by Justice Sheila greckle the lone woman on the panel of Judges she said Helen’s history of abuse and its effects were not considered in any meaningful way in her sentence and she noted that in an extensive review of battered women

Manslaughter sentences none even came close to being as long as Helen’s she said a woman subjected to 27 years of egregious abuse may be accustomed to seeing herself as worthy only of harsh punishment that does not mean the justice system should follow suit Helen’s sentence was cut in half to 9

Years Helen and I were able to talk long enough on the phone that she got the sense that the words written by Justice greckle were uh useful Beyond simp simply Helen sentence being cut but that there were uh comments which would inure to the benefit of other battered women and

Helen was very grateful for that and wanted me to speak publicly on her behalf about that 9 years is still a long sentence one of the highest Elizabeth sheii had ever seen in a battered woman self-defense case but in the circumstances it was a huge win and not only for Helen

So even from Helen’s case I hope that there are things that have or will change so for example the prosecutors ask of 18 years and agreement to 18 years uh I say in retrospect it was not supportable and the court of appeals seems to have agreed so what if anything

Has happened and the prosecutor’s office about their approach to resolving these types of cases I don’t know but I would hope that something has happened because there should not be another woman who is put in this position we have a strong case for first-degree murder therefore we’re going to offer you an

Unconscionably high manslaughter sentence take it or leave it well that’s not the way these cases should be resolved absolutely not and the tragedy that was Helen’s case should have been avoided so in other words if a crown is prepared to take a guilty plead a manslaughter they should reduce the charge to

Manslaughter and give the woman the real Choice does she want to go to trial on manslaughter or does she prefer to take a guilty plea of mans solder I think that the Alberta court of appeal decision is kind of like another Laval moment I mean in some sense it’s a

Repetition because is the decision resurrected some of the statements um and principles from the Laval decision and I think it’s discouraging that the Alberta record appeal has to do that to remind everyone that in fact this was already decided 30 years ago Mona ducka did an extraordinary job because to get a plea

Deal set aside by an appeal court is like climbing a mountain and she did it the justice system prefers of course to leave plea negotiations um as settled so it’s interesting yes everyone says very accomplished lawyer and you know people thought that the judge was a good judge

So you know the sentence therefore must be fine what about the law that’s my question why aren’t we dealing with what the legal precedents are in the area you know in order to assess what’s a good sentence for a woman in these circumstances what’s a fair sentence in these

Circumstances with the time she’d already served in prison a 9-year sentence meant Helen could be out on Dayle in just over a year I know that there was a huge sentiment out there in the public that Helen should be sort of set free immediately and uh part of the challenge

Was tampering that expectation because I just didn’t find it to be a realistic expectation uh I don’t think Helen ever had that expectation but she was getting a lot of um messages from people who thought that she should be immediately freed so dealing with the reality of her

Facing a 9-year sentence was sort of the next step in our journey to get out Helen would have to go before the parole board and answer their questions I went back to see Helen in prison a few weeks before her hearing H yeah it’s so it’s just nerve-wracking

Yeah because I just I I think my biggest fear is I’m worried I’m going to freeze up and just be at a loss for words I don’t know cuz you know I got really no idea the line of qu what kind of questions you’re going to ask yeah I mean one one

Way this process we’ve been through is almost like a trial run I think in a lot ways yeah and like I know that wasn’t easy at all and isn’t easy but um you know some of these things you you went through really intensive questioning from me that’s a

Tough interview and um you did so well and you were so I don’t know I didn’t feel like it did very well but yeah it’s I just hope they don’t expect too much of me I don’t know like I I wouldn’t think that they’re GNA cry

That much but I don’t I don’t know right it’s because I got a list of all the people that are observing it yeah so yeah and then of course that’s in the back of my mind but it’s not the not just these people a few people in the

Room it’s there’s a whole bunch of people listening to this it’s it’s I don’t yeah wow I hope it I hope I’m overpreparing myself yeah cuz if it’s worse than what I think it’s going to be I I’m not going to do well you know when I was going through the

Story over and over and thinking about how these people who don’t even know you connect with you whether they’re your pen pals whether it’s Matthew whether it’s Kim um that you are a person that people people see who you are and yeah and I don’t I don’t know how that he

Comes to be I really don’t I’m I’m just me but I think that that fills me with a lot of hope that the Pearl board will see that too as we waited for her parole hearing I was wrapping up my own reporting on Helen’s story I’d conducted hours and

Hours of interviews and read hundreds of pages of transcripts but there were things I still wondered about like what made miles the way he was and a big question was Helen really the one who killed him that’s next time on the final episode of in her defense she shouldn’t be there we

Know more of the truth and uh Helen didn’t kill anybody she didn’t I know that I mean she uh probably wanted to but but she didn’t do [Laughter] it but there’s nothing we can do about that now you want to talk about what you mean by that she covered for somebody else So in her defense is made by casha mahovich and me Janna Pruden our field recording was done by Amber Bracken amember also took the photographs of Helen and her family and friends for this story we’ve included some in our newsletter you can still sign up at tgam slin her

Defense a big thanks to Samantha Edwards for all her help publishing our newsletter in her defense is recorded at mchan University by Sheena Rossiter Emily rubita and Sasha stoich David Crosby mixes the show our executive editor is Angela Penza special thanks to head of visual journalism Matt frer and head of editing Ian

Boff our theme song is The Fighter by Jen Grant it’s arranged for the show by David Crosby you can email me personally at jprg if you are experiencing domestic violence and want to talk to someone you can find resources and your nearest shelter at shelters like this please consider

Subscribing to the Globe and Mail our listeners get a special discount on new subscriptions at http://www.g glob andma docomo deal take care and thank you for Listening W

Appealing a plea deal is a long-shot, but defence lawyer Mona Duckett wants to take it on. The Crown says justice has been served. The Court of Appeal considers Helen’s future.

Learn more about this podcast and domestic violence in Canada, or sign up for our newsletter at

E-mail the reporter, Jana Pruden, at [email protected]

If you’re experiencing domestic violence and want to talk to someone, you can find resources and your nearest shelter at

New subscribers to The Globe and Mail get a deal at

Our theme song is The Fighter, by Jenn Grant.

Follow The Globe and Mail



Leave a Reply