On January 12, 2021, a majority of the Alberta Court of Appeal reduced an accused’s 18-year jail sentence to nine years. At first blush, this is an astonishing reduction in sentence in a very serious homicide case.
Ms. Naslund faced charges of first-degree and indecently offering an indignity to human remains in relation to the death of her husband.
The penalty for first degree murder is life imprisonment with no chance of parole for 25 years.
Rather than go to trial, Ms. Naslund agreed to a plea deal. She pleaded guilty to manslaughter in exchange for the Crown agreeing to a sentence of 18 years’ imprisonment and withdrawing the charge of indignity to human remains. This means that she avoided a life sentence and no chance of being released from jail for 25 years.
By way of background, Ms. Naslund was in a 27 year married relationship with her husband prior to killing him. The relationship involved many incidents of physical and emotional abuse towards Ms. Naslund. She used alcohol, suffered from depression, and repeatedly tried to commit suicide. She almost succeeded in 2003. Her husband, Miles, would often become intoxicated and handle firearms in their homes. He would threaten to commit suicide.
On the September long weekend of 2011, Ms. Naslund suffered additional abuse from her husband, whereby she had accidentally damaged a tractor on their farm. He threw a number of wrenches at her in an angry state. He told her that she would “pay dearly” for damaging the equipment. He violently cleared the fully set dinner table onto the floor, indicating the meal was “not fit for a dog”. His threatening conduct increased throughout the day. He calmed down when he passed out late that evening.
Ms. Naslund then shot her husband twice in the head when he was sleeping in their bed.
She then disposed of his body in a nearby waterbody. She then called the police and fabricated a story about her husband going missing.
Despite agreeing to a plea deal that saved her a life sentence and 25 years of no chance for parole, Ms. Naslund appealed her sentence.
She told the Court of Appeal that her sentence was unduly harsh because she was a “battered woman” who suffered through a physically abusive 27-year marriage and killed her husband rather than continuing to risk being killed herself.
Since there was a big difference between manslaughter sentences involving battered women who kill their abusive partners and the 18-year sentence proposed by counsel in this case, the 18-year sentence could not stand. The Court of appeal reviewed cases of battered women who killed their husbands. The sentences ranged from 2 to 8 years.
According to the Court of Appeal, lawyers are obligated ensure they justify their position on the facts of the case as presented in open court. For this reason, it is crucial to ensure that any “deal” that is put before a sentencing judge can be justified by the prosecutor and criminal defence lawyer.
Having decided that the sentence was unduly harsh the majority of the Court of Appeal reduced the 18-year sentence to one of 9 years.
This decision demonstrates that while plea deals are a vital component of the criminal justice system, they are not ironclad and certainly not always accepted. Sentencing judges and appeal courts have the ability to review plea deals.