Nova Scotia assault case spotlights need for unborn victims legislation
|In Dartmouth, across the harbour from Halifax, N.S., Charlene Marie Knapp, 28, was admitted to hospital in the early morning of August 1 after being stabbed 15 times with a sword. She was almost four months pregnant.
Her sister, Stephanie Humber from Essex, Ont., later told the media that “three of the 15 stab wounds went clear through Charlene’s body. She underwent two surgeries to repair damage to her bowels and her liver, her lungs collapsed and she needs a chest tube to keep breathing.” Knapp’s injuries were considered life threatening. Incredibly, at the time of this writing, she is reportedly still pregnant.
Alan Bryan, 43, who lives with Knapp, has been charged with one count each of attempted murder, aggravated assault and assault with a sword, all against the mother. He is currently undergoing a 30-day psychiatric assessment.
The police officers who subdued and arrested him in the early hours of August 1 were prepared to lay charges on behalf of both the mother and her unborn baby. But a senior officer pointed out that they could not lay charges on behalf of the unborn child, a fact confirmed by a quick middle-of-the-night consultation with the on-call Crown attorney.
Some media reports said the Crown overrode the police. Not so, according to Halifax police media spokesperson Constable Jeff Carr: “There was a misunderstanding on the part of the officers, and when the situation was clarified, only charges pertaining to the woman were laid.”
A Charlottetown Crown attorney explained that in Canada, Crown attorneys (prosecutors) are sometimes consulted by the police to determine if there is enough evidence to lay a charge and what charge is appropriate.
Chris Hansen, media spokesperson for Nova Scotia’s Public Prosecution Service, noted the question about charges in connection with Bryan’s arrest arose because there are very few circumstances in which the Canadian Criminal Code permits laying charges on behalf of an unborn child. Section 223, subsections 1 and 2, states that a homicide can only be committed against a fetus after he has completely proceeded, in a living state, from the body of his mother.
After consultation, the arresting officers laid charges against Bryan on regarding the mother only. But evidence is still being gathered. “When the police complete their investigation, PPS Crown attorneys will again review the evidence and make a decision on how to proceed from there,” Hansen said.
She added that although the legal situation is rather complex, and current Canadian law does not automatically permit the laying of charges on behalf of an unborn child, the justice system does not totally ignore the child’s existence. Should there be a finding of guilt in the trial of any person accused of a crime against a pregnant woman, the fact of pregnancy could be considered an aggravating factor when sentence is being determined.
Ellen Chesal, of Nova Scotia’s Campaign Life Coalition office, asked: “When is our government going to step up and protect women and their unborn children against such violence? It’s time an Unborn Victims of Violence Act be instated, where pre-born children are also protected,” she wrote in the Halifax Chronicle Herald.
Shirley MacDougall of Antigonish, the provincial president of the Catholic Women’s League of Canada, went on record as saying that the attacker should face two counts of attempted murder. “From our point of view, a fetus is a life. It should be a double attempted murder,” she said. “There has to be some charge (on behalf of the child).”
Karen Murawsky, former director of Campaign Life Coalition’s Ottawa lobby office, used to work with federal members of Parliament. She told The Interim that over the years, several MPs have attempted to bring in legislation to protect the unborn, but without success. “In this area, Americans are far more enlightened than we are, with their Unborn Victims of Violence Act,” she said.
Last year, Leon Benoit’s unborn victims of violence private member’s bill became a victim of political manipulation and was never voted on in the House of Commons.
Like many others across the country, Murawsky urges continued effort. “We surely do need a law that protects the Canadian child in the womb. We surely do need to keep trying.”