Battered women challenged in plea negotiations; justifies significantly reduced sentence: court
The Court of Appeal for Alberta has ruled that battered woman syndrome justifies the rejection of a joint submission where an accused pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter in exchange for 18 years of imprisonment.
In R v Naslund, 2022 ABCA 6, Helen Naslund was charged with first degree murder for killing her husband. Pursuant to a plea agreement, she pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter in exchange for a sentence of 18 years’ imprisonment. The sentencing judge accepted the joint submissions and the sentence agreed upon was imposed.
Naslund subsequently appealed the sentence. She asserted that the joint submissions should have been rejected by the sentencing judge because it “[brought] the administration of justice into disrepute.” She also claimed that the sentence was unduly harsh because it failed to consider that she was a battered woman.
The appellate court agreed.
While joint submissions or plea bargains are vital components of the criminal justice system, its acceptance or rejection must be subject to the public interest test, said the court.
The public interest test is established in R. v. Anthony‑Cook, 2016 SCC 43 where the Supreme Court of Canada said that a sentencing judge “should not depart from a joint submission unless the proposed sentence would bring the administration of justice into disrepute, or is otherwise not in the public interest.”
In this case, the sentencing judge failed to consider whether Naslund’s circumstances as a battered woman in determining whether the sentence of 18 years was appropriate, said the court.
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Thomas Wakeling asserts that the record is too sparce to conclude that Naslund was suffering from “battered woman syndrome” as no expert evidence was tendered as to Naslund’s psychological state.
However, Justice Sheila Greckol, the author of this decision, concluded that Naslund exhibited sufficient hallmarks of “battered woman syndrome” to be sentenced on that basis. The facts on record reveal that Naslund experienced the classic features of a cycle of domestic violence, and that she felt she could not leave her situation due to “learned helplessness” – a central concept in battered woman syndrome, said the court.
The Crown stressed that both parties enjoyed the benefits of joint submissions, particularly that of certainty – the Crown saved resources in obtaining a conviction and Naslund was convicted of a lesser offence. However, the court ruled that the unique power imbalance in this case was significant enough to temper the otherwise important value of certainty in enforcing the joint submissions.
“Battered women are distinctly vulnerable in plea negotiations,” said the court, and such circumstances are a “significant mitigating factor which radically [alters] whatever sentencing range would otherwise have been appropriate.”
The court concluded that any remaining benefits of a joint submission were unable to justify the 18-year sentence as being in public interest. Thus, this sentence was set aside, and a sentence of nine years’ imprisonment is imposed.