ZERO TOLERANCE AGAINST VIOLENCE
THE KLASSEN CASE
In the early morning hours of November 02, 1995, 44-year old Ralph Klassen killed his 36-year-old wife Susan Klassen in the bed of their home in Whitehorse, Yukon. Ralph choked Susan until she lost consciousness, applying so much pressure to her neck that he sprained both his thumbs under the force. He then took a pillowcase and tied it around Susan's neck, permanently cutting off the oxygen flow to her brain. There were no signs of a struggle.
Ralph and Susan Klassen were married in 1982. Over the years, the couple had separated several times, attempting to alleviate the stress both partners were experiencing in their marriage. In October of 1995, Ralph and Susan had agreed to yet another trial separation. This time, it was intended to last for six months. Ralph left Whitehorse on October 12, 1995, and with Susan's financial support, he settled in Alberta. A week before her death, Susan told a friend that Ralph had been calling, asking her to reconcile the marriage right away and not to wait until the end of the trial separation period. Susan also told her friend that she was not interested in reconciling the marriage, as she suspected the difficulties between her and Ralph to continue. Susan said that she needed time to herself because Ralph's anger and his jealous behavior had become increasingly intolerable to her. She also said that she quite enjoyed her newly found freedom.
When Ralph Klassen returned to Whitehorse on November 01, 1995, he wanted to convince Susan that the couple should get back together. It was later that night that he strangled her. After he had killed Susan, Ralph wrote a note, in which he said that he was sorry about what he had done. The note did not mention a specific name, however, Ralph later stated in court that it was intended for the man he suspected Susan to have an intimate relationship with. The note said, "I'm sorry I went into a jealous fit of rage. The image of you and my wife together made me insane." In an attempt to commit suicide, he then drove his car into a propane truck on the Klondike Highway. Ralph survived the collision with minor cuts and bruises. However, the driver of the propane truck suffered injuries to his back and neck, for which he had to undergo extensive physiotherapy. The long-term results for the driver are a permanent physical disability and an ongoing loss of earnings.
Shortly after the accident, Ralph Klassen was apprehended by police. It was then, that he confessed to the killing of his wife, Susan. In his statement to police, he claimed that he blacked out and lost control after Susan had allegedly commented on his low sperm count and a developing relationship with another man. According to Ralph, she said, "What's the point in making love? Your body is only dead sperm anyway. Besides, you already know about Gord." Klassen was prepared to plead guilty to a manslaughter charge but was charged with second-degree murder. Fourteen months later, on January 17, 1997, a Whitehorse jury found Ralph Klassen guilty of manslaughter. On January 18, 1997, the trial judge imposed a sentence of five years. Because each day of pre-trial incarceration counts as 1.5 days, the time served during pre-trial incarceration amounts to an additional two years, for a total of seven years of imprisonment.
At the time of sentencing, Ralph Klassen's eligibility for day parole was determined for the spring of 1998. Furthermore, it was determined that he would be eligible for an early release in May of 2000 - after having served two thirds of his sentence. His sentence will be completed on January 17, 2002.
EVENTS FOLLOWING THE TRIAL
On January 24, 1997, despite –38 temperatures, more than 300 men, women, and youths marched through Whitehorse, Yukon, to protest Ralph Klassen’s verdict and sentence. Protesters felt that the verdict should have been murder and that the five-year sentence did not reflect the seriousness of the crime.
An article in the Whitehorse STAR newspaper on January 24, 1997 reported that some abusive husbands in Whitehorse were using the Klassen murder trial as a model to reinforce their harmful behaviors. Michael Hanson, the unit manager at Yukon's Family Violence Prevention Unit (FVPU), said "the result of the murder trial has become further ammunition for those men seeking power and control in their relationship." "They're also using it as another tactic of controlling their partner by referencing, by saying 'This is all he (Klassen) got; I could end my problem the same way.' " "It gets used as a way of minimizing or moving away from their actions," Hanson said. FVPU received a number of calls from abused women who told FVPU workers that the low sentence in the Klassen murder trial made them fear for their safety. Some abusive men who were enrolled in the assaultive husband program told their counsellors that a five-year sentence would not deter them from killing their partners. Some men said that it would have been easier for them to kill their wives than to go through the program. Hanson said that while some of those comments may have been made thoughtlessly and with no actual intent to follow up on the threat, “intended or not, such remarks always have a very frightening effect on the victim.”
While incarcerated, Ralph Klassen applied for parole three times, but withdrew his application in June 1998, and in November 1999. In September 1998 he was denied day parole, full parole, and unescorted temporary absence. The Parole Board - John Orr and Cheryl Mcdonald - described his progress as "superficial," concluding that he was "still capable of family violence" and that he posed "too great a risk to be released." John Orr told Klassen, "You expressed little insight into your crime," and, "We are not satisfied that you have a real understanding of the violence in your relationships. "Orr also told Klassen that his body language was "controlling and evasive."
On May 18, 2000, after having served two thirds of his sentence, Ralph Klassen was released from William Head Institution, a medium-security federal penitentiary on Vancouver Island. While on statutory release, offenders are supervised by a parole officer and must abide by mandatory conditions of release as well as any special conditions imposed by the Board. Klassen must report to a parole officer regularly, he must disclose any relationships with females, and he is not to contact any of Susan's family members. The Board also imposed an area restriction for metropolitan Edmonton.
The media coverage the Klassen case received on national television prompted Ralph Klassen's first wife, Elisabeth McLeod, to contact the Crown prosecutor's office in Whitehorse in February of 1997. At the outset of the murder investigation, Susan Klassen's sister, Brenda McDonald, had informed both Crown and RCMP that Ralph had been married before, but the Crown did not contact McLeod prior to the trial. On February 10, 1997, McLeod told Manitoba RCMP how Ralph had repeatedly assaulted her during their 1976 marriage. In a 19-page statement, she stated that "he used to punch me in the side of the head with a closed fist." She also told police that Klassen had choked her during one of the abusive episodes. McLeod left Klassen three months after the couple were married. One year later, she won an uncontested divorce from him on the grounds of "mental and physical cruelty." During the Klassen murder trial, Ralph told jurors that he and Elizabeth had drifted apart and attributed the marriage break-up to "mutual incompatibility."
Criminal lawyers agree that, in domestic homicide cases, it is general practice to contact previous spouses of the accused. If the accused person takes the stand, then their spouse's testimony can be used to rebut statements made by the accused under oath. However, in the Klassen case, it was the Crown's position that there are limitations to presenting facts about an accused's past and that a jury has to try an accused on the facts of the case, not on the accused's reputation.
On May 27, 1997, the Federal Justice Crown appealed Ralph Klassen's five-year sentence, arguing that it was "inadequate, given the aggravating factors of spousal violence and breach of trust," that it was simply "too low," and that "we should establish a new, higher range of sentences for spousal manslaughter." On June 27, 1997, Ralph Klassen's five-year sentence was upheld in the Yukon Court of Appeal by three appellant BC-Yukon Court judges. The judges dismissed the appeal with the argument that the five-year sentence was in line with sentences imposed in similar cases. The court's eight-page decision announced that "as it cannot be said that the sentence imposed in this case was demonstrably unfit, we have no alternative but to dismiss this appeal." The Appellate Court was unable to take into consideration newly surfaced evidence of a history of violence in Ralph Klassen's first marriage. The judges stated that, "We are confined to the evidence actually presented at the trial." The judges also noted that, in his sentencing decision, the trial judge would have considered as mitigating factors the lack of prior violence and the lack of a criminal record.
In September 1997, the Federal Justice Department filed to appeal Ralph Klassen's five-year sentence at the Supreme Court of Canada. On September 19, 1997, Federal Justice Minister Anne McLellan commented, "We continue to be concerned about cases like this one, and what they mean to the other cases of spousal abuse. It is for this reason that we are asking the Supreme Court of Canada to review the sentence." Senior Counsel Bill Corbett of the Justice Department's Criminal Law Branch announced, "Our position is that the guidelines for these sentences that have been established in the Court of Appeal in B.C. don't reflect the gravity of the cases." The Supreme Court dismissed leave to appeal in the Klassen case, because it had already accepted the Burt Stone case, in which similar arguments would be presented. Burt Stone, whose counsel had successfully invoked a provocation defence, alleges that his wife's "nagging" provoked him into stabbing her 47 times. In its ruling on the Stone case, the Supreme Court determined that an accused who benefits from the argument of provocation is entitled to rely on the same argument for sentencing purposes. As the successful application of a provocation defence reduces the accused's offence from murder to manslaughter, it also mitigates his sentence for a manslaughter conviction.
In February 1997, activists launched a petition to abolish the statutory defence of provocation. That same month, Yukon MP Audrey McLaughlin presented over 3,000 signatures to the House of Commons.
While attending the Federal Justice Ministers' Conference in February of 1997, Yukon Justice Minister Lois Moorcroft voiced concerns about the provocation defence as it is used in domestic femicide cases. She thereby joined the efforts of B.C. Attorney General Ujjal Dosanjh, whose office had asked for a full review of the provocation defence one year prior to the conference. Dosanjh had undertaken this effort in response to public outrage against the Gilroy and Stone cases. In R. v. Gilroy, the accused alleged that the victim made a violent homosexual advance toward him. Gilroy claimed that this advance caused him to stab the victim more than 60 times, many of the blows delivered after the victim's death. In the Gilroy case, the Crown Counsel accepted the lesser plea of manslaughter based on the anticipated evidence of provocation. Gary Gilroy was sentenced to 5 years but only served 4 years in jail. In R. v. Stone, the accused stabbed his wife 47 times because she allegedly "nagged" him. Stone's counsel successfully invoked the statutory provocation defence, and a jury accepted it. Consequently, the offence was reduced from murder to manslaughter. Bert Stone was sentenced to 7 years but served just over 3 years in jail.
Shortly after the Federal Justice Ministers' Conference, a federal-provincial-territorial working group was commissioned to review the law of provocation. In the summer of 1998, the Federal Justice Department put out a consultation paper on the defences of provocation, self-defence, and the defence of property. Since the publication of this consultation paper, the Justice Department has received a number of responses and recommendations on the issues. However, as of December 2000, the Justice Department has not yet proposed any changes to the defences in question.
On November 18, 1997, Yukon MP Louise Hardy introduced motion 265 (M-265) in the House of Commons. The motion requested that a committee be established and commissioned with the preparation of a bill that would eliminate section 232 of the Criminal Code, also known as the provocation defence. M-265 was debated in the House on March 16, 1999. While members agreed that section 232 was in serious need of reform, there was not enough support to move the motion to a vote. Louise Hardy's efforts and position on the need to abolish the defence of provocation is summed up in an article written in October, 2000 with the hope that it would evoke interest in the issue.
Over the past three years, close to 15,000 signatures from across Canada have been presented to the House of Commons, asking that the provocation defence be abolished.
For an in-depth discussion on how the defences of provocation are used to reduce responsibility in killings motivated by sexism, homophobia, and racism; the arguments to abolish these defences; as well as the arguments to expand the defence of self defence, please go to http://www.nawl.ca/provocation.htm and http://www.elizabethfry.ca/Response/cover.htm
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Website last updated October 31, 2004
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Zero Tolerance Campaign co-ordinated by Brenda McDonald (Susan's sister) and Shelagh Smith (Susan's friend)
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