© 2008  Karen Selick

An edited version of this article first appeared in the August 13, 2008 issue of the National Post.
 If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.

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Hear the Other Side

During twenty-one years of practising matrimonial law, I’ve learned that no matter how convincing a story my client tells me while sitting across the desk from me, the picture will change when I hear the other spouse’s version of the same events. Sometimes the change will be slight, sometimes enormous.  Occasionally I can hardly believe that both people are describing the same incidents. 

That’s why the legal maxim audi alteram partem, meaning “hear the other side”, evolved centuries ago—to caution judges and juries about the danger of reaching conclusions without having heard both sides of the story.

But when one spouse has murdered the other, as Teresa Pohchoo Craig of Kemptville, Ontario did to her husband Jack, the court gets to hear only one side of the story—the murderer’s.  And when the murderer says she was an abused wife and therefore deserves leniency, what should we believe? 

Ms. Craig’s recent trial in Ottawa heard evidence that one night, while Jack slept under the influence of alcohol and marijuana, she put a pillow over his face and stabbed him repeatedly with a butcher knife. In a videotaped statement made to police later, she admitted they had not even been arguing that night.  Rather, she said: “I hate him, that's why I kill him. Enough is enough. Get rid of him."

She was an abused wife, she told police, but the abuse was never physical, just verbal.  As I perused the newspaper reports of her allegations, I couldn’t help imagining how Jack’s side of the story might have sounded, had he lived to tell it. 

Teresa’s allegation: “I even had to ask permission to telephone my family.”

Jack’s reply: “That was after she phoned her family in Malaysia ten times within a week and ran up a phone bill of $300.” 

Teresa: “He even timed my visits to the bathroom.”

Jack: “I yelled at her once, ‘You’ve been in the shower for 25 minutes with the bathroom door locked, and I have to use the toilet.’” 

Teresa: “He called me ‘bitch’ and ‘whore’.”

Jack: “She called me worse than that.” 

The jury, however, got to hear only Teresa’s version of the story. They responded by finding her guilty only of manslaughter, rather than the premeditated, first-degree murder that her act seems to have been. As a result, she avoided life imprisonment and may be out of jail after serving as little as two years of her official eight-year sentence.

Her expert witness testified that Teresa couldn’t simply leave Jack because she feared he would get custody of their son and prevent her from seeing the child. Jack had threatened this—or so Teresa said. Maybe he did.  It’s a common enough threat. My clients—both male and female—regularly tell me they hear this threat.  However, none of them has ever murdered a spouse as a precautionary measure. 

Teresa had actually left Jack twice before, including once since the child was born.  She had previously had sole custody of the child for about six years. Five minutes with a matrimonial lawyer would have been enough to reassure her that she was the parent with the far better chance of getting custody. 

But she didn’t apparently seek such advice. Instead, Teresa decided that her child would be better served by having a dead father and a jailed mother than by running the chance of being raised by the man she later described to police as “a very good father” but a stern disciplinarian.   

Readers, get used to this. We can expect to see many more female criminals getting off with a slap on the hand in future.  Recent legal developments both in Canada and abroad have increased the scope for pleading “battered wife syndrome”. And criminally inclined women, like anyone else, respond to incentives. They take advantage of opportunities. The more excuses we give them to commit crimes when the proper and rational course of action would be to walk away, the more of them will commit crimes instead of walking away.

Ten years ago, in a Supreme Court of Canada decision called R. v. Malott, two female judges including Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin virtually invited lawyers to get creative with the battered wife excuse—to apply it not only in cases where self-defence is claimed but whenever the reasonableness of a woman’s actions are at issue. Furthermore, the judges suggested, let’s not be overly restrictive about identifying battered women. They aren’t only helpless, passive, dependent types. The category also includes strong, independent, assertive and professional women. But, they warned, it would be “imprudent” to allow men to plead “battered husband syndrome”, at least until more research is done.  I’m not holding my breath. 

Already, there are at least two reported cases of Canadian women using battered wife syndrome to gain acquittals on fraud charges.

Recently, the Labour government in the United Kingdom introduced a bill that would provide a new defence to murder charges, in “exceptional circumstances” where the deceased’s “words and conduct…caused the defendant to have a justifiable sense of being seriously wronged.”  So all the Mrs. Craigs in Britain who feel “seriously wronged” when their husbands call them bitches will now have an excuse to lose control and murder the louts.

Back in Ottawa, no fewer than 46 female sympathizers attended Ms. Craig’s sentencing, including representatives of LEAF, the radical feminist legal organization.  Some supporters reportedly broke down sobbing after her sentence was delivered. Many felt she should serve no jail term at all. My mind boggles at the kind of world these women want to live in—a world where women murder men instead of leaving them, with complete impunity. My suspicion is that the jury was intimidated by this coterie of vixens, but we’ll never know. They’re legally forbidden to say. 

Meanwhile, in my law practice, I’ve started wondering. If I get even the faintest hint that an opposing female party is alleging that her husband—my client—was abusive, must I now start warning my client that his life might be in danger?


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       November 16, 2008