01/18/2013 10:15 EST | Updated 03/20/2013 05:12 EDT

Abused woman in hit-man case 'relieved' no new trial

Hours after the Supreme Court of Canada overturned the acquittal of Nicole Doucet Ryan, the Nova Scotia woman who tried to hire a hit man to kill her abusive husband said she still fears for her safety.

In an unusual move on Friday, Canada's top court ordered the Crown to drop her case. With all proceedings against her stayed, Doucet, as she is now known, cannot be retried for counselling to commit murder.

After the verdict, an emotional Doucet told a Halifax press conference that she is "relieved."

She said she's still afraid for her safety and that of her 12-year-old daughter Aimee, whom she hasn't seen in five years. The girl now lives with her father — Doucet's ex-husband — in Ontario.

"I'd like to thank the Elizabeth Fry Society," she said. "Hopefully, they'll be able to help me out to re-establish contact with her. I hope in peace, I will continue working, and hopefully just re-establish my life, put my life in order."

The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the Crown's appeal of Doucet's acquittal, but in an 8 to 1 decision stayed proceedings. The lone dissenting judge was Justice Morris Fish, who said he would have ordered a new trial.

Fish pointed out in his dissent that Doucet "considered for seven months having her husband killed, paid a 'hit man' $25,000 to do the job, and, when that failed, attempted twice more to arrange for her husband's demise."

Her lawyer, Joel Pink, was pleased with the court's ruling.

"The end result of the stay is that she, in fact, has not technically been found not guilty," he said. "Basically, the end result is that she has no criminal record or any criminal conviction."

Doucet, a high school teacher in southwestern Nova Scotia, was arrested in March 2008 and charged with counselling an undercover police officer to kill Michael Ryan.

Doucet told lower courts of years of abuse at the hands of her husband.

He had pointed a gun at her a number of times, thrown pieces of furniture at her, and had threatened to “burn the f--king house down” with her and her daughter inside if she tried to leave.

She testified her husband had been charged with uttering threats against her, but that those charges were dropped. She also said she had called the RCMP on nine occasions and 911 on one occasion.

The woman testified that she had complained to the police, but had been told it was a “civil” matter and there was nothing they could do. However, when she began to seek out a hit man to kill her husband, the RCMP deployed an undercover officer to act as a hit man. Shortly after she agreed to pay him, she was arrested.

The top court’s decision, written by Justices Louis LeBel and Thomas Cromwell, said it was “disquieting” that “it seems 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.”

Elizabeth Sheehy, a University of Ottawa law professor on the legal team of two interveners — the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies and Women's Legal Education and Action Fund — said, "In terms of the lack of police response to Nicole Ryan's pleas for help and in terms of the prosecutorial response in pursuing her as opposed to him... there's a serious problem there."

Unusual defence of 'duress'

Doucet's lawyers had used the unusual defence of duress, rather than self-defence, in her case. Duress can apply when someone reasonably fears for his or her life or safety, and sees no reasonable avenue of escape.

Self-defence is based on the premise that it is lawful to meet force with force.

In a media lockup Friday, the defence of duress was explained using the example of someone wielding a gun and ordering a person to steal something valuable belonging to a third party. The victim of the theft is an innocent third party, but the person who commits the crime of stealing is doing so under duress, against his or her will.

The court did not consider the option of self-defence, because it had never been argued by the woman's lawyers.

It was not clear whether a defence of self-defence would have been available to Doucet, since she was not living with her husband when she began to look for a hit man in 2007.

At Doucet’s first trial, it was revealed that well after she left Ryan, he was seen sitting in her car in the parking lot at the school where she worked as a teacher. The story was corroborated by witnesses from the school.

Nothing they could do

Police were called, but during the hour they took to respond, Ryan continued to sit in the car with the engine running. When police arrived, they told Doucet there was nothing they could do, because the vehicle was registered in her husband’s name.

Doucet testified that she felt she had attempted to use every avenue available to her to resolve the concerns she had about her husband.

The court didn't consider the “battered wife defence,” which was established in a 1990 case in which a woman, during a fight with her abusive husband, in which he slapped her, hit her on the head and threatened to kill her, shot him in the back of the head while he was leaving the room.

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

The decision essentially to reverse an acquittal, then order no new trial for the defendant, is extremely rare.

The court gave several reasons, including:

- Doucet's original trial judge accepted that duress was available as a defence.

- The abuse she suffered took a terrible toll on her.

- She has been going through these proceedings for five years.

- Police failed to protect her.

“A stay of proceedings is warranted only in the clearest of cases,” the court said.

“In our opinion, Ms. Ryan’s [Doucet's] case falls into the residual category of cases requiring a stay: it is an exceptional situation that requires an exceptional remedy. In all of the circumstances, it would not be fair to subject Ms. Ryan [Doucet] to another trial.”