01/17/2013 05:08 EST | Updated 03/19/2013 05:12 EDT

Nicole Ryan, Abused Wife Who Sought Hit Man, Free After Supreme Court Stays Case


OTTAWA - Fresh from a liberating victory at the Supreme Court of Canada, Nicole Ryan choked back tears and uttered a single word when asked if she still feared for the life of her daughter.


The Supreme Court may have given a victory to the Nova Scotia woman who tried to hire a hit man to kill her abusive husband, Michael Ryan. But the justices couldn't give her what she fought so hard to protect five years go — her daughter.

Mother and daughter haven't had contact in almost five years, ever since Ryan took the child, now 12, in March 2008. To this day, Nicole Ryan said she has no information about the girl that her ex-husband once threatened to kill along with her if she ever tried to leave him.

Ryan said Friday she just wants to get her life back on track.

"I will continue working, hopefully just to re-establish my life, put my life in order," she told a news conference at her lawyer's office in Halifax.

"I'd like to thank the Elizabeth Fry Society. Hopefully, they will be able to help me now to re-establish contact with her."

Ryan, who has resumed a teaching career, also said she has drawn support from her students.

She was acquitted by a trial judge in 2010 on a charge of counselling to commit murder and while the Supreme Court justices overturned that decision, they also blocked any further action against her with an extraordinary stay of proceedings.

The court also raised serious questions about the conduct of the RCMP and Nova Scotia prosecutors in the case, saying it was "disquieting" that the Mounties chose to mount a sting operation to arrest her rather than respond to her husband's "reign of terror" over her.

"It's sad," the soft-spoken Ryan said when asked about that part of the ruling.

She was arrested in 2008 when she tried to hire an undercover RCMP officer to kill her husband — who had threatened to kill her and her daughter and burn their house down.

Technically, the Supreme Court granted the Crown appeal and overturned the acquittal, saying her defence of duress wasn't valid, but, by an 8-1 margin they said it would be unfair to subject her to a new trial.

"In our opinion, Ms. Ryan's case falls into the residual category of cases requiring a stay: it is an exceptional situation that warrants an exceptional remedy," the court ruled. "In the interests of justice, a stay of proceedings is required."

The court also highlighted the fact that the RCMP did not adequately respond to her numerous calls for help.

"The abuse which she suffered at the hands of Mr. Ryan took an enormous toll on her, as, no doubt, have these protracted proceedings, extending over nearly five years, in which she was acquitted at trial and successfully resisted a Crown appeal in the Court of Appeal," justices Louis LeBel and Thomas Cromwell wrote in the ruling.

"There is also the disquieting fact that, on the record before us, it seems that the authorities were much quicker to intervene to protect Mr. Ryan than they had been to respond to her request for help in dealing with his reign of terror over her."

The judgment avoided any comment on the court's precedent-setting 1990 battered woman's ruling, which allows abuse victims accused of killing to plead self-defence.

The ruling disappointed the interveners in the case — the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies and the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund — which had hoped the court would address the self-defence issue.

"We still have a lack of clarity about the law of self-defence," said Kim Pate, executive director of the Fry society.

"It's still not clear what would the next woman be able to do, to defend herself? Should she just be shot, herself? Should she be murdered and her child murdered with her?"

University of Ottawa law professor Elizabeth Sheehy, a legal adviser for LEAF and the author of an upcoming book on battered women who have killed, said the ruling is a victory for Ryan, but sends a troubling message to abused women.

"It would have been nice if there was at least a sentence or two indicating that self-defence would have worked," she said.

"The negative message for battered women is that your actions are going to have to fit within a legal box in order to be excused and that's a worry."

In their ruling, the justices summarized the plight of the 115-pound Ryan during her marriage to the 230-pound ex-soldier.

LeBel and Cromwell noted that the trial judge accepted that Ryan's testimony about the abusive behaviour of her husband was, in fact, true.

"For example, Mr. Ryan's violent and threatening behaviour included outbursts at least once a week, where he would throw things at the respondent's head, physically assault her and threaten to kill her," the justices wrote.

On another occasion, he took his wife and daughter to a remote, forested spot and told them this was where he planned to bury their bodies.

Nicole Ryan's lawyer argued that his client called police at least nine times seeking protection.

Instead, the RCMP eventually arrested her in March 2008 after they sent an undercover officer to pose as the hit man she was trying to hire.

The couple had separated and moved apart, but Ryan became terrified for her daughter's safety when her father began showing up at her school.

"While she had engaged the police and other agencies in an effort to assist her in the past, the evidence was that her problems were viewed as a 'civil matter'," the justices said.

"She felt so vulnerable that the phone call of the undercover police officer appeared to her as the solution to all her problems. On the basis of these findings, the trial judge found that the common law defence of duress applied and acquitted the accused."

Ryan's lawyer Joel Pink said if the police had done more to answer his client's pleas for help, the legal drama could have been avoided.

He said he does not believe the ruling gives wives "open season on their husbands."

In their ruling, the nine justices unanimously agreed that the duress defence was improperly applied at trial.

But rather than subject Ryan to a new trial, they ordered a stay of proceedings instead. On that point, one justice dissented.

Justice Morris Fish said a stay was not a proper legal remedy and that a new trial should have been ordered.