Canada Offers “Duress” Defense for Battered Women

Nicole Ryan had endured more than 15 horrific years of domestic abuse when, in 2008, she plotted to have her husband killed. Unbeknownst to her, the hired “hit man” was an undercover police officer who quickly had Ryan charged with “counseling to commit murder”.

But last week, Ryan was acquitted in a Nova Scotia provincial court under the defense of duress–a new plea for abused women in Canada. The decision represents a beacon of hope for traumatized women who lash out under extreme violence.

The defense of duress provides a new standard against which to judge the so-called “criminal” actions of battered women. Previously, only women facing imminent threats of violence or death had a hope of pleading self-defense in Canadian courts. The same is true in the United States, where women must be able to prove their safety was immediately threatened by an abusive spouse in order to successfully argue self-defense. In light of Ryan’s case, Canadian judges can now account for rash, out-of-character actions taken against violent spouses by abused women who are “living in a state of terror.”

Said Chief Justice Michael MacDonald:

The rationale for the defense of duress is quite different. It involves excusing a wrongdoing in circumstances where the accused is left with no other alternative. Therefore, unlike self-defense, it is not the type of action society would support, let alone applaud.

From the time Nicole Ryan and her husband married in 1992, it was clear that Michael Ryan’s temper was out of control. He frequently pummeled his wife with his fists and threatened her with guns.

She was separated from her husband at the time she was arrested in 2008, but, she testified, her husband “was sexually assaulting her weekly, threatening her life and specifying where he would bury her.”

Given the circumstances, the court ruled, her actions were a result of normal human instincts of self-preservation.

The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal has raised the bar for courts all over the world in adjudicating cases involving battered women who have sought to defend themselves against their attackers. Elizabeth Sheehy, a Canadian legal scholar, called the decision a “legal breakthrough.” She told The Globe and Mail,

This was a planned and deliberate murder because she had no other way out. It was her life and her child’s life versus his.

Lenore Walker, the foremost advocate for battered women and battered woman’s syndrome in the U.S., has argued that women like Ryan may turn to murder in self-defense as a result of “learned helplessness.” Walker argues that women in such violent relationships come to believe that any attempt to resist their batterers is doomed to failure. This is compounded by the batterer’s repeated threats to kill the woman if she leaves, and his insistence that she has no escape. Moreover, as in Ryan’s case, battered women’s actions are often taken in an effort to protect the lives of their children.

For abused women in the U.S. who find themselves before the court as Ryan did, the plea of self-defense will rarely succeed unless the woman kills her abuser while he’s abusing her—and even then the defense is not without risk. As in Canada, the defense is frequently rejected, and battered women who may not otherwise pose a threat to society can find themselves behind bars. The defense of duress may very well change that.