It is hard to find a word to describe the day-to-day circumstances of a woman caught in a violently abusive relationship.
But when she tries to kill her abuser, she wades into different water and really, really tests the law.
On January 18, 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada released reasons for judgment in the matter of Nicole Ryan, anybody reading the summary of facts would have to do so slowly, pausing occasionally before continuing.
The law set by the case pales in comparison to the facts but for the record, Ryan was originally acquitted of arranging the murder of her husband but Canada's top court overturned that acquittal rejecting the defence of duress.
All facts taken from the Court record, Mr. Ryan was a member of the Canadian Armed Forces and stood 6'3" inches, weighing 230 pounds. Ms Ryan was 5 to 3 inches and weighed 115 pounds.
Her testimony at her trial:
"I have cried, but I never cried during the explosions or the outbursts. You cannot cry. You cannot show any emotion. You cannot show any feelings. You’re hollow. You’re empty.”
This is not some Reuters report from the deserts of Afghanistan. The Ryan family lived in Bridgetown, Nova Scotia.
And if it can happen in Bridgetown, it must be happening on far too many homes across Canada. These women need adaptive law to protect them from the monsters who, apparently, are in our neighborhoods.
For the record, Michael Ryan has since released an intriguing video which suggests that his ex-wife made the abuse allegations up just to play into a custody battle for their daughter Aimée - a battle, he points out, that he won.
Ms Ryan was a local school teacher. She had two universities degrees. She came from a large family with six sisters and two brothers. She married Michael Ryan in 1992 and they had one child.
They moved to Edmonton in 1993 and because of some remark she made concerning Pierre Elliott Trudeau, some trigger went off in Mr. Ryan. Again, from the Court record, he apparently:
"… started to yell and scream at her, pushed her up against the wall, squeezed her neck, and punched the wall."1
Rather than run, indecision she would later regret, she decided initially to simply avoid conversations in which they had a difference of opinion.
Still, once begun, the abuse continued including these chilling words she presented to the Court:
"Do not test me. I will kill you."
After the family moved to Trenton, Ontario, she says she was raped by her husband. In September 1996, she ran back home alone with her daughter Aimée, finding employment in concession, Nova Scotia.
He was sent to Bosnia in 2000 and retired as a soldier in 2005. But there was obviously some contact: their daughter was born in March 2000.
So brash was he in the abuse that, she says, he used occasions of telephone calls to threaten his wife:
"… he threatened to burn the house down and destroy Aimée and Ms. Ryan if she ever left him."1
Nicole managed to get a teaching job at a local French school i Nova Scotia but at about the same time, Mr. Ryan moved back in with her. According to the Court record, the violence continued. Mr. Ryan imposed a form of what is known in less civilized parts of the world as talaq: his wife was not allowed to go shopping and had to be home by 16h50 every day.
The Court relied on the allegation that Mr. Ryan owned a revolver which he used to kill the family dog as well as a neighbour’s dog. If true, that puts context to the further allegation that, on several occasions, he held his revolver to his wife's head. On yet another occasion, he described for her how he would kill her and her daughter and bury them in their backyard:
”… he was going to dig a trench and put them in it and pile garbage on top of them."
He began to consort with a girlfriend and would even bring her into Mrs Ryan's home.
By some miracle, she gathered the courage to ask for divorce but Mr. Ryan's reply was unequivocal:
"I will destroy you. I will burn the fucking house down. I don’t care if you and Aimée are in the house.... I can prove that you are mentally ill. You will be nothing”.
She reported the conversation to the local RCMP even as her and her daughter quickly ran from the house. She tried to get a peace bond - all of these attempts to get protective justice failed. She was desperate.
"Ms. Doucet made a failed attempt to hire a killer (for $25,000).... This came to the attention of the R.C.M.P. They set up a sting operation. It was by then late March 2008 when ... Ms. Doucet was at her weakest. An undercover police officer called her and offered to do the job. She took the bait. She was then arrested."2
The local RCMP detachment, with determination and enthusiasm never shown against Mr. Ryan, now turned their attention to the victim and arranged for her to talk with an individual that she believed was a hit-man although it was secretly a police officer. When Ms Ryan, probably manic at this time, bit at the chance to take a contract out on her estranged husband’s life, she was arrested and charged with counselling another to commit murder.
The Law's Shine
Her case was brought to trial at Digby, Nova Scotia and Justice David Farar of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court acquitted her on the basis of duress.
Michael Ryan also points out, in his Yahoo video, that the Crown inexplicably did not call him to testify in the original hearing against Ms Ryan even though duress (spousal abuse) was an emerging, and ultimately successful defence.
The Crown appealed but the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal would have none of it and dismissed the appeal on March 29, 2011, siding with Justice Farar.
The appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada took up a day of hearing in Ottawa in June of 2012. Like molasses in January, the decision took a good seven months, finally published in January 2013.
The appeal was allowed. The reason? Nicole Ryan wasn't really under duress at the moment she offered the hitman $25,000.
To many lawyers, this was a plain and simple case of guilt: she tried to hire a hitman, wrong under any circumstances. One lawyer's Twitter:
"Another anti-male decision - #Court in #Canada ends prosecution against woman who hired #hitman 2 #kill #hubby."
Others feel that the highest court of Canada ducked this golden opportunity to specialize a dictionary-quality definition of duress under the peculiar circumstances of spousal abuse, to set standards on deadly force self-defence for battered women who fear for their lives in their marriages.
There will be no sequel to this pathetic story as in overturning the acquittal, the Supreme Court of Canada took the peculiar and probably emotional decision not to order a retrial but instead to stay the proceedings, essentially ending criminal prosecutions against Ryan. But in fairness, the Court may have felt that their previous doctrine of the battered woman syndrome was as far as they could go.
At least in that result, humanity and good sense prevailed over lawyering, as it had in the two Nova Scotian courts before it.
Or did it?
Only these two ex-spouses really know who the liar is.