Alberta’s top court asked to reduce Helen Naslund 18-year manslaughter sentence

Helen Naslund will remain behind bars at the Edmonton Institution for Women while three Alberta Court of Appeal justices decide if her 18-year sentence should be reduced and if so, by how much.

Naslund was sentenced last October by Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Sterling Sanderman.

He accepted the joint sentencing submission from the Crown and defence after Naslund pleaded guilty to manslaughter. She was originally charged with first-degree murder.

Helen Naslund married Miles Naslund in 1983 when she was still a teenager. According to an agreed statement of facts, it was an unhappy marriage, laden with physical and emotional abuse. The family was in financial trouble and Miles often drank to the point of passing out. 

He was passed out when she shot him twice in the back of the head while he was sleeping face down in bed. After the shooting, Helen got her youngest son Neil to help drag the body outside and dumped it in a slough.

Miles Naslund’s death remained a family secret for six years until one of Helen’s other sons began telling a number of people about it — including some who contacted RCMP. 

Defence lawyer Mona Duckett told three appeal judges Tuesday that in her opinion, the trial judge seemed to view the circumstances through “a gendered lens.” 

When he sentenced Naslund, Sanderman called shooting her husband “a callous, cowardly act on a vulnerable victim in his own home”. He suggested she could have left or explored other options besides shooting her husband. 

Edmonton defence lawyer Mona Duckett. (Dawson Duckett Garcia and Johnson Barristers)

“That ignores the position of a rural battered woman who for 27-years tolerated and lived under threat,” Duckett said. “Those are errors and an inappropriate and gendered lens to view this act of violence.” 

Helen Naslund, 56, observed the hearing by CCTV from a private room at the Edmonton Institution for Women. She wore a mask throughout the two-hour hearing. 

Justice Kevin Feehan expressed concern that there was no psychiatric evidence before the court about battered woman syndrome. 

Duckett insisted it was not necessary. 

“Society has advanced since 1990 to recognize without the need of expert evidence that women who are in long term abusive relationships are living with the constant threat of femicide,” Duckett said. 

The defence lawyer asked for a reduction in sentence without specifying a specific range. Duckett suggested a comparison to the 2020 Alberta case of Deborah Doonanco who pleaded guilty to shooting her partner and burning the house down She was given an eight-year sentence.

“Eighteen years should not have been the price of consent to a guilty plea to manslaughter,” Duckett said. “There was a visceral and immediate reaction to this sentence from the community.” 

An online petition supporting Naslund’s reduction in sentence has received more than 23,000 signatures. 

‘Not a free card’

The Crown urged Alberta’s highest court to dismiss the appeal, arguing there was no basis to reject the joint submission that was the result of behind the scenes negotiations between the Crown and defence.

He argued the Crown had a strong case for murder, and lowering the sentence would be unfair to the prosecution after “giving up so much” in exchange for agreeing to 18 years.

“This is as near as you can get to murder with a manslaughter,” Crown prosecutor Jason Russell said.

“An 18-year sentence isn’t outside of the range, especially when you consider the planned nature of it and the deception afterwards.”

Under questioning, Russell admitted he was not able to point to another similar case that resulted in an 18-year sentence. 

“There’s not a free card just because you’re an abused woman,” Russell said.

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