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The producers had set up two tables. One for the host and one for Jason Martel and two other guests. One was a ponderous-looking professor type in a grey beard, the other an overly made-up lady of a certain age (Jeff was guessing early fifties) wearing a proper business suit and a hairdo that had lots of air and spray in it. Every time she nodded her coif nodded with her. She reminded Paul Smith of Gloria Allred, and not entirely in a good way.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to this week’s edition of All in a Week. Today we have a very special show, featuring CBC reporter Jason Martel, renowned McGill University philosopher Martin Greenberg, and Elizabeth Poitras, of the law firm Langlois, Poitras & Finley. Good morning, all of you.”
“Jason, let’s start with you. You are our number one reporter covering the story of Jean-François Toussignant, the man who is on trial at the moment for the first-degree murder of his parents, who died last fall in a Laval nursing home under circumstances that, at the time, raised very little suspicion. It was almost by accident that a Laval police investigator started to look into elderly patients dying in slightly unusual numbers and discovered what is alleged to be an assisted suicide network. Assisted suicide is still illegal in this country at the moment, as we know. But the investigator also uncovered cases where, it is alleged, what was performed was closer to euthanasia on individuals who had not previously indicated a desire to die. Yes, I realize I’m being very careful with my words, here, almost to the point of being obscure. That is because we as a broadcaster have a responsibility to talk about these issues in a way that does nothing to interfere with the trial taking place this week. I see our lawyer Elizabeth nodding in agreement…”
“Oh, absolutely, Jacques. It is crucial that we in no way cause prejudice to the case currently being heard in court. A man’s life is on the line, here, we can’t afford to be careless about this. I only hope your viewers will forgive us for sounding like we’re constantly trying to protect our backsides… It’s not our backsides we’re trying to protect, it’s the integrity of the justice system and the rights of the accused, who must be presumed innocent until proven otherwise.”
“There is also, if I may…”
“Yes, absolutely, Martin, go ahead.”
“Well, too often you will see people in the media use a case like this one to boost their own ratings, and unfortunately this leads to a lot of unnecessary sensationalism. I must commend the CBC on this; so far, this network is behaving in a remarkably restrained manner in this trial, which is one of the reasons I agreed to come on this panel this morning. I object to needless sensationalism not just because it is crass or deleterious to the rights of the accused in the case, but rather because it has a perniciously negative effect on our own collective psyche.”
The host did a good job of conveying just how flummoxed the audience might be. He smiled. “I get the part where you congratulate the CBC for our restraint, but I’m not sure I entirely understood the bit about our collective psyche… What do you mean by that?”
“Can you believe the bullshit these clowns get away with?” Paul Smith agreed.
“I mean,” answered Martin Greenberg, “that when we allow ourselves to enjoy sensationalist stories, stories that are told and retold in a breathless tone that overly emphasizes the sensationalist parts of the matter at hand, when we start thinking that sensationalism is normal, we as members of the media-consuming public become, as a group, negatively affected by it.”
“I think what Martin is saying makes sense,” Elizabeth Poitras cut in, in a clear attempt at rescuing her fellow panelist and making sure their audience didn’t just leave for church or something. “If I understood properly, that is. When we let ourselves believe the sensationalist stories without taking the time to think things through properly, it lowers the level of public discourse, which in turn affects all of us negatively.”
The anchor was looking happier. “I see! Jason,” he said, turning to the youngest member of the panel by a rather wide margin, “you have been covering the trial this week and will continue to do so this coming week. You have also spent time with the accused, Mr. Toussignant, who gave you a wide-ranging, exclusive interview, parts of which were aired on the CBC just before the trial started. It’s on our website if you missed it,” he added, as the URL dutifully appeared on the screen. “You know about the accused, his life, his story, the strategy for his defense, more than anyone around this table – maybe more than just about anyone in this province except for the accused, the rest of his family and his lawyer. What can you tell our viewers about the man, Jean-François Toussignant, that might help them understand his story better.”
Jason shifted a bit in his seat. This was another big moment for him and his career. Better not blow it… “Well, first of all, Jacques, we must make sure our viewers understand that there is a great deal of Mr. Toussignant’s story that we are not telling you about just yet. We want to let him make his case in court first. We absolutely do not want to do anything that might influence the jury, for instance by discussing some of the more, let’s say, sensationalist parts of what I expect will be in his testimony.”
“OK, fair warning,” the anchor allowed. “But you know, the flip side of this admirable restraint we’re showing in not sensationalizing a story like this is that we end up teasing people about what they might hear if only we could tell them, and I’m not sure I like it!”
“Oh, come on, you attention-seeking whore!” Paul Smith nearly threw his cup at the television. “You love nothing more than to tease people!”
Jason smiled. “Well, that’s not my intention either. I’m doing my best to walk a fine line between giving our viewers as much information as we can while protecting the integrity of the justice system and the rights of the accused in this case.”
“And this line can be very fine indeed!” enthused the lawyer on the panel.
“Exactly. And personally I will say that I look forward to this trial being over because I do not find it very easy to walk that line. I find it makes it look like we’re not daring to speak our minds, which in a way is true, but for good reasons. In any case,” Jason added, “this isn’t really about me but about a man on trial and about the larger questions his defense strategy is going to raise this week…”
“Now, about that,” segued the host, “you did a long exclusive interview with Mr. Toussignant, some of which was already aired here on the CBC. Again it’s available on our website if you missed it. We kept some of the interview hidden in the box, so to speak, waiting for Mr. Toussignant’s testimony, but among the parts of the interview we were able to air, what struck you as particularly interesting?”
“Well, now,” Jeff grumbled from his undisclosed location. “Don’t tell me they’re getting to the point!”
“In broad strokes, what Mr. Toussignant is saying is that he was justified to do what he is accused of doing to his parents because, he claims, they mistreated him all his life. In essence, he is arguing that his lifelong mistreatment caused him to seek an end to his suffering almost at any cost, not unlike the kind of defense we see in cases of domestic abuse, for instance, the so-called battered woman syndrome.”
“And this, Elizabeth, is where I’d like you to come in, to clarify this concept of battered woman syndrome, before we move on to the larger issues of what constitutes proper, loving upbringing.”
“Sure. The concept of the battered wife syndrome has been around for a long time, and is not unique to Canada. Essentially it’s the idea that a person who has been the subject of violent, repeated abuse over years may at some point snap and kill her abuser – usually it’s the woman who is abused by a domestic partner – and the killing of the abusive partner is not considered murder because of the abuse. It’s a bit like the normal self-defence idea, but applied specifically to the situation of an abused woman.”
“Right,” the host interrupted. “Normally if I am in a situation where I fear for my life because someone attacked me on the street and my back is to the wall, I’m allowed to use force to defend myself, but only to defend myself, do I understand that properly?”
“Pretty much. In fact, you do have the right to use force to defend yourself, or someone in your care – like, say, your child – or your property. But much less so when it comes to property. And yes, in some cases you are allowed to use deadly force. But each case is different, and each case is judged according to its own merit. The force used has to be reasonable and proportionate to the danger you face. So you can’t kill someone who’s threatening to slap you across the face, for instance. Or you can’t punch someone’s lights out if they are 100 pounds lighter than you and not armed with any kind of weapon – they’re just mouthing off, in other words. But if you are a small woman by herself and some big guy with a knife attacks you, and you have every reason to believe he will use that knife on you and hurt you or kill you, then the courts would generally agree that your situation was such that any use of force on your part, including the deadly kind, is allowed to protect your life.”
“OK, I think we all got that. Now what about the battered woman syndrome? How does that fit into the concept of self-defence?”
“In Canada this question got pretty much settled in 1990, when the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Angélique Lavallée. She had been in an abusive domestic relationship for years. At some point her partner told her something to the effect that if she didn’t kill him he’d kill her, and she had every reason to believe him, as he had hit her several times before. She ended up shooting him dead when his back was turned. And the difficulty, here, was that she was not in a position where her life was in immediate danger. She was the one holding the gun and he was not, at that moment, attacking her or threatening her directly. So she couldn’t claim she’d killed him in self-defence, since he had not been attacking her when she pulled that trigger. That’s where the concept of the battered wife came in, which essentially says that in some cases, some abused women get so desperate to end the abuse that they feel the only way out is to kill their abuser or kill themselves. In the Lavallée case the Court agreed that the battered wife syndrome applied.”
“So how does that work? How does someone claim this as a form of self-defence? And more to the point, how on earth would something like this apply to the case of Jean-François Toussignant, who was not, unless I’m much mistaken, in a domestic relationship with his parents?”
“Hey,” Jeff exclaimed, elbowing his lawyer in the ribs, “that’s exactly what you asked me!”
“Well,” the lawyer on television said, visibly trying to answer the question without squeezing herself into too tight a corner, “That is of course one of the very critical questions that will no doubt come up during Mr. Toussignant’s trial. I do not pretend to know what his lawyer is preparing to argue in this case, but I can tell you that in 1990 the Supreme Court admitted the defence of battered woman syndrome after some pretty clear evidence of abuse over many years, including several trips to the hospital for serious injuries, along with expert testimony showing Lavallée sincerely believed that her partner would kill her that night unless she killed him first. But there is one extra wrinkle thanks to a more recent case out of Nova Scotia, where a woman hired a hit man to kill her husband who, she claimed, had been abusive for years. The husband did not get killed by the hit man because it turns out the hired gun was an undercover cop, and besides the husband always denied the accusations of abuse. But the case of the woman, whose name is Nicole Ryan, made its way through the courts and wound up in the Supreme Court in 2013. I don’t want to tell you every detail of this story, since it’s pretty long and convoluted, but the short version is the highest court overturned an earlier acquittal but refused to make her go through another trial because, they said, she had suffered enough already. So in effect, the Supreme Court allowed her to get away with hiring a hit man to kill someone who, she claimed, had been abusive. Now this case may have a closer relationship to the case of Mr. Toussignant, but we’ll have to see this week when his defence strategy becomes clearer in court.”
Paul Smith was grinning now. “It’s good to know they also have panelists who know something,” he said.
The anchor cut back in. “This is fascinating stuff, thank you Elizabeth. Now after the break, I want to move this discussion to the question of abusive parenting and what kind of debate we may be facing if Mr. Toussignant’s defence is successful. Please don’t go away.”
“Wanna watch more?” Paul asked his client.
“Nah. They’ll just skim the surface again. I would rather review our notes instead.”
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