In a highly unusual ruling, The Supreme Court of Canada allowed the Crown’s appeal of the acquittal of a woman accused of hiring a hit man to murder her husband. At the same time, though, it ordered a stay of proceedings, meaning the woman could be prosecuted no more.*
The accused woman was a 98-pound diminutive figure who had been the victim of her violent, abusive and controlling career-soldier husband. In 2007, she decided the only way she could leave the abusive relationship was to have her husband murdered.
She was contacted by an undercover RCMP officer posing as a hit man. She met with the purported assassin for hire and paid him $2,000 in cash, promising $25,000 more when the deed was done. She was shortly thereafter arrested and charged with counselling murder.
The trial judge found beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused had committed the offence. However, he also held that the accused’s conduct was lawfully excusable because of duress.
In law, for the purposes of our discussion, “duress” could be crudely referred to a compulsion to commit an unlawful act because of a threat against the accused or a third person. The accused must genuinely believe that the threat could be carried out and there is no safe way to escape it. The details may differ depending on the circumstances, but for our purposes, the trial judge decided, albeit erroneously, that duress was a lawful excuse against the charge. and the accused was therefore acquitted.
The Crown appealed to the Court of Appeal, but the trial decision was unanimously upheld. The Crown then further appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.
The panel judges of the Supreme Court of Canada decided that duress could not be used as a defence for this particular accused woman, although conceivably the defence of “self-defence” could have been raised by the accused.
The distinction between self-defence and duress, according to the Supreme Court of Canada, is that if the accused had been threatened without an element of compulsion, the only available defence would be that of self-defence. If the accused instead had been compelled to commit a crime under threat of death or bodily harm, the available defence would be duress.
The Supreme Court of Canada criticized the Court of Appeal for failing to address this distinction. In other words, duress is only available as a defence in situations where the accused is threatened for the purpose of compelling the commission of the crime.
Although the acquittal in this case shouldn’t have been made, the majority of the Supreme Court was of the opinion that the circumstances of the case were truly exceptional and hence warranted a stay of proceedings. In particular, the Court was mindful that the police seemed to have intervened quicker to protect the abusive husband than to assist the accused in escaping his reign of terror. To order a new trial, in the opinion of the majority, would have been unfair and oppressive to the accused. The accused could be prosecuted no more, the Court ruled.
Only the Supreme Court of Canada can set aside someone’s acquittal and free the person at the same time, without worrying that the decision will be reversed on appeal.
*R. v. Ryan, 2013 SCC 3
This blog is provided for educational purposes and for your reference. It is not intended as legal advice and should not be regarded as such. The initiatives may have changed since the publication of this article. Do not hire a hit man to murder your husband!