March 5, 2001
No-fault attempted murder
A convicted woman claims spousal support from the ex-husband she almost killedby Marnie Ko
It takes real effort not to get alimony
Shooter Alexander: Entitled to apply for alimony.
One afternoon in November 1995, Christine Ann Alexander visited the small Bowmanville, Ont., bungalow she had formerly shared with her husband and the couple's two children, then aged 13 and 15. The Alexanders had recently separated, and she was home briefly to pack her things. David Alexander came home to help his estranged wife move out, and although Mr. Alexander had no intention of reconciling with his wife, the couple had sex. Afterward, she implored him to give the stormy relationship another chance, but Mr. Alexander refused. The rejected woman then shot her husband in the head with a .22-calibre hunting rifle and was later found guilty of attempted murder.
Christine Alexander is now out of jail on parole. Last month she was in court, suing for spousal support in a case that critics say highlights the serious pitfalls of the country's divorce laws. Ontario's Family Law Act requires spouses to support the other spouse "in accordance with need, to the extent that he or she is capable of doing so." The court is not allowed to consider the conduct of the spouses, with one exception: if the conduct has been "so unconscionable as to constitute an obvious and gross repudiation of the relationship." However, the Divorce Act, which as a federal law supersedes a provincial act, is adamant: "The court shall not take into consideration any misconduct of a spouse." In other words, a husband or wife responsible for breaking up a marriage, whether through adultery, alcoholism, abusive behaviour or even attempted murder, could be rewarded with financial support from the victim. A ruling on the support application is expected in March.
Mr. Alexander, now living in Oshawa, east of Toronto, suffers lasting effects from the near-fatal shooting. He has headaches and bouts of numbness. The bullet remains lodged at the base of his neck, near his spine, and he cannot close his jaw completely. The right side of his face is disfigured and his facial muscles twitch uncontrollably. Despite his injuries, he is employed as a security guard, earning approximately $40,000 a year.
His ex-wife, meanwhile, was convicted in 1997 of attempted murder, assault and firearm offences. She spent two years in pre-trial custody and was sentenced to an additional two years less a day. After serving just 16 months, she successfully applied for parole and now lives in the same city as her ex-husband, relying on a $535 monthly welfare cheque to support herself. As she earns less income than her ex-husband, she is legally entitled to apply for spousal support, although she may not be successful.
At Christine Alexander's attempted murder trial, the court heard evidence the separation occurred after a lengthy period of abuse endured by the husband. The crown prosecutor suggested Christine Alexander frequently became jealous, and j assaulted her husband on more than one occasion. In addition to brandishing i knives and guns at him during frequent arguments, Alexander acknowledged throwing a wrench at him during one bout. She pleaded not guilty to attempted murder but admitted shooting her husband, claiming she was unable to remember why. "I remember I just felt really empty, like a robot," she said. "I never wanted him dead."
Victim Alexander with sons David and Robert: The bullet remains lodged at the base of his neck.
Mr. Alexander remained conscious during the shooting. He testified his wife continued to hit him with the rifle butt after shooting him in the head, while screaming "I'm sorry! I love you! If I can't have you, then nobody can!" Neighbour Nick Chapman found Mr. Alexander covered in blood on his back door stoop around 6 that evening, and paramedics rushed him to hospital in serious to critical condition. At the time, Mr. Chapman's wife, Gail, noted, "He looked pretty gruesome. The bullet went in the left side and came out the other.
Since then, court documents filed by Mr. Alexander state he suffers greatly from depression and remains fragile, both physically and psychologically. He could not be reached for comment, but he remarked to reporters last month, "As if the shooting wasn't enough, now she comes after me for whatever I've got left."
"Morality used to be a consideration in spousal entitlement," says Mr. Alexander's lawyer, Peter Tetley, also of Oshawa. "In the past, adultery was used to disentitle spouses from claiming support. Then, a provision passed claiming conduct is not relevant, only the need and ability to pay arising out of the marital relationship matters. If we looked into the history of the Divorce Act, many husbands of means were working and relied on infidelity claims against their wives to avoid paying support. The court determined that wasn't right."
Mr. Tetley says this case is different. "I can't think any judge would have in mind excusing conduct like this [attempted murder]," he says. He says the court should dismiss the claim because more than five years have passed since the date of separation, and due to the "unconscionable treatment Mr. Alexander received throughout the course of their marriage, including acts of violence and Christine's ultimate attempt to terminate his life." Further, argues Mr. Tetley, even if the law provides for the ex-wife to be entitled to support, "it ought to be fixed at zero" because of her behaviour.
Belleville, Ont., lawyer Karen Selick, a National Post columnist, commented in her column last month that many lawyers have horror stories about spouses awarded support despite adultery, desertion, violence, alcoholism or mental cruelty. "In the case of spousal support, lawmakers decided their overriding social goal is to give an income to ex-spouses (usually women), regardless of how they behaved during their marriages," she noted. Meanwhile, Gus Sleiman, president of the Calgary-based Men's Educational Support Association (MESA), blames feminism and the court's favouritism towards women for allowing outrageous claims such as Christine Alexander's. His group wants the Divorce Act amended.
"Eliminating spousal conduct in marriage made it easier to reward women financially because that's where they gain power and control," says Mr. Sleiman. "It's not proper at all. Neither men nor women with conduct so serious as to cause damage to the family, whether through cheating, crime or abuse, should be rewarded. They shouldn't get custody and they shouldn't get money."
It takes real effort not to get alimony
Only two prior Canadian rulings serve as case law when determining what amount of support to award a spouse who has seriously wounded the other. The first is a 1991 Ontario case involving Carol MacDonald who stabbed her husband, Donald. During a 24-year traditional marriage Mrs. MacDonald cared for her children and did not work outside the home. On their honeymoon, she slapped her husband's face. Another time she threw boiling water at him, and she once drew blood by poking him in the back with a sharp knife. The couple bickered and scrapped on a daily basis. During the first five years of their marriage, the husband retaliated, also with physical violence. Once he admitted, he choked her and another time he punched her in the forehead with a signet ring, leaving a scar. Eventually, he learned to walk away without retaliating.
One evening, Mrs. MacDonald had been drinking and argued with her husband while they were driving. Taking a steak knife from the car's glove compartment, she stabbed him in the lower rib, penetrating to a depth of about six inches, and also in the shoulder. The judge ruled that the wife's conduct warranted an award of much less alimony than normal. He also noted that the violence was not one-sided, although the wife was usually the instigator, that it was a 24-year marriage in which Mrs. MacDonald had contributed greatly to her husband's success, and "she obviously was under great emotional strain ... due to many things, perhaps pre-menstrual syndrome, perhaps overindulgence in alcohol or perhaps a combination and medication or a combination thereof. He awarded her $700 per month for five years.
In a 1996 British Columbia case, Doreen Day was not so fortunate. She shot her husband, Fletcher, four times -- twice in the head and once each in the chest and leg. She was convicted of attempted murder. However, a subsequent suicide attempt resulted in her spending most of her prison term in hospital recovering from self-inflicted wounds. She later went to the Supreme Court of British Columbia in her fight for spousal support. Her claim was dismissed. The court ruled the attempted murder of her husband repudiated the relationship and any rights she might have had to spousal support.