Ottawa Citizen
Sunday 4 March 2001

Woman who shot sleeping husband goes free

Abused wife suffering from 'amnesia' when she killed husband; 'Now I can do things with my family again'

Douglas Quan
The Ottawa Citizen


Douglas Quan, The Ottawa Citizen / Rita Graveline leaves Hull court yesterday morning after she was acquitted of second-degree murder in the death of her husband, Michael. Mrs. Graveline, of Luskville, admitted to shooting her husband, but the defence successfully argued that she was not conscious of her actions.

Rita Graveline, the Luskville woman who admitted to shooting her husband in the back while he slept, was found not guilty of second-degree murder yesterday.

Clutching her lawyer's hand, Mrs. Graveline, 52, burst into tears as the 10-woman, one-man jury (one juror was excused last week for family reasons) announced its acquittal.

"Now you can go home with your head up, and put everything behind you," Mrs. Graveline's lawyer, Marino Mendo, proclaimed.

Overwhelmed by a mix of elation and relief, Mrs. Graveline at first did not want to speak to reporters waiting outside the Hull courtroom that had heard eight days of emotionally-charged testimony.

"I didn't know what to expect," she said, her voice cracking. "I'm just so happy. Now I can do things with my family and my friends."

During the trial, Mr. Mendo argued that after 30 years of physical and emotional abuse from her husband, Michael, Mrs. Graveline had lost all her senses, and was suffering from a momentary loss of consciousness or "dissociative amnesia" when she picked up a hunting rifle and shot him on the night of Aug. 10, 1999.

But yesterday's acquittal may not necessarily have been based on this main defence.

Before the jury was sent to deliberate the case on Thursday night, Judge Martin Bedard told the jurors that if they did not think Mrs. Graveline acted unconsciously, they could consider the possibility that she feared for her life, and had acted in self-defence.

Mr. Mendo had originally considered using this as the main defence, coupled with the argument that Mrs. Graveline was the victim of battered wife syndrome. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 1990 that battered wife syndrome could be used to support cases where self-defence was being argued.

"I believe the jury (based its decision) on the defence (of loss of consciousness) that I presented, but we will never know," said Mr. Mendo.

Under the Canadian criminal justice system, jurors are not required to explain the reasons that went into their decision.

The judge had also allowed the jury to consider a third defence option: that Mrs. Graveline had been provoked. Such a finding would have reduced the second-degree murder charge to manslaughter.

But yesterday, the jury also delivered a not guilty verdict on the lesser charge of manslaughter meaning they did not think there were reasonable grounds to use provocation as a defence.

Mr. Mendo said it was unlikely that yesterday's verdict would open the floodgates for so-called "non-insane automatism" to be used as a defence for murder.

"Is every battered woman on this planet tomorrow going to say I lost consciousness (as an excuse for killing their spouses)? Not necessarily," he said.

"The non-insane automatism defence is one of the hardest to prove."

In a strikingly similar case in 1998, an Ottawa jury heard how Lilian Getkate had shot her husband while he slept. She, too, had been abused, and her lawyers argued she had been in a "dissociative state."

The jury found her guilty of manslaughter, though the judge ordered a conditional sentence -- no jail time.

During the trial, Mrs. Graveline often broke down as she was asked to describe her 31-year marriage to Mr. Graveline, described as an alcoholic and abusive husband.

Apart from pushing and shoving, she described how he had broken her arm, smashed a bottle on her head and punched her many times. She also gave several accounts of Mr. Graveline threatening to kill her.

"It's so hard for me because I tried to cover so much that I'm so embarrassed to tell," she said at one point in the trial, tears streaming down her cheeks.

Two psychiatrists retained by the defence testified that on the night of the killing, Mrs. Graveline likely suffered from dissociative amnesia, a condition that would have momentarily shut down her consciousness and left her at the mercy of aggressive urges brought about by the abuse.

That night, Mrs. Graveline had been out at a local pub shooting darts. When she returned home, her husband allegedly pushed her after he learned she had misplaced some keys.

That confrontation, her consumption of alcohol that night, and her history of depression all conspired to trigger the momentary loss of consciousness, the experts said.

Mrs. Graveline regained her senses only after the blast from the rifle, they said. And that's why she went back downstairs to call 911.

But another psychiatrist used by the Crown argued that the amnesia was probably triggered by the shooting itself, and that Mrs. Graveline was fully conscious between the time she walked up the stairs, picked up the rifle and shot her husband in their bedroom.

"My position is that Mrs. Graveline was aware of what she did. It showed in cross examination that she said she remembered shooting the gun," said Crown attorney Martin Cote yesterday after the verdict.

"There are things that came out in her testimony in cross examination that pointed to a certain consciousness of action."

Mr. Cote also pointed out discrepancies between her testimony and the contents of her medical file, which suggested that the beatings had stopped as early as 1992.

Mr. Cote, however, added that he was not surprised by the not guilty verdict.

"She seems to be and comes across as a caring and loving person who was abused for a period of time and who was living with a husband who definitely was treating her badly," he said.

"There's that element of sympathy that's present."

Mr. Cote said he is considering an appeal, possibly on the grounds that the judge went too far in allowing the jury to consider three possible defences.

"The only defence that should have been offered to the jury should have been automatism and not self-defence," he said.

"You can't be a robot, not knowing what you are doing, and then at the same time be defending yourself from your husband. They're contradictory."

Copyright 2001 Ottawa Citizen Group Inc.