Whitehorse Daily Star

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Photo by Whitehorse Star

Above: Ralph Klassen, above right: Accused rammed truck - Twisted and disfigured, the remains of the blue Toyota pickup truck. It was the vehicle that was driven and destroyed by Ralph Jake Klassen, 44, shortly after the murder of his wife, Susan Catherine Klassen, 36. The Whitehorse man was nearly killed, but he wasn't. Instead, he was taken to Whitehorse General Hospital by ambulance for treatment of minor injuries.

Klassen gets five years for manslaughter

A jealous husband who strangled his wife with his own two hands and a ligature was convicted over the weekend of manslaughter and sentenced to five years in prison.

By Whitehorse Star on December 2, 1996

A jealous husband who strangled his wife with his own two hands and a ligature was convicted over the weekend of manslaughter and sentenced to five years in prison.

Ralph Jake Klassen, 45, should be able to apply for day parole in march 1998, a parole officer said from Prince George, B.C. this morning. The offender will be eligible for full parole in September 1998, said Judy Leykauff of the National parole Board. He has been in pre-trial custody for nearly 15 months.

The 45-year-old man was on trial for second-degree murder. He killed Susan Catherine Klassen, 36, in the bedroom of their Lake Laberge home in November 1995. Negative comments made by the wife had caused the estranged husband to fall into a deep, blind rage, the jury had decided.

Without emotion, the eight male and four female jurors announced their verdict at 8:13 p.m. Friday. They had left the Yukon Supreme Court room at 1:20 p.m. that day to begin deliberations. There was no obvious reaction by Klassen when the decision was announced.

The general response to the verdict, however, was fierce. It ranged from heated words to the offender, to attacking one of the Andrew Philipsen Law Centre's east-side doors. One glass door was smashed.

"Murderer, you're getting away with murder!" one of the sisters yelled at the offender after the judge and jury had left the courtroom. "You've got to live with that!" she added, as he was escorted out of the room.

Family members spoke of being shocked by the verdict. One of the five sisters fainted inside the courtroom, and was later taken to Whitehorse General Hospital by ambulance. Brenda McDonald explained the next day that she thought she was having a heart attack.

The victim's family had included Susan Klassen's father - retired police officer Brendan Burke, and his five daughters: McDonald, Angela Clark and Valerie Fischer, of Edmonton; Barb Klaczek, of Athabasca, Alta.; and Christine van der Hoek, of Innisville, Alta.

The offender was sentenced Saturday afternoon, with the submissions by Crown and defence counsel having been heard that morning.

The mood inside the building seemed to have changed overnight. There was the addition of six RCMP members, supervising inside and outside the courtroom. There was also a metal detector set up at the courtroom entrance.

Sheriff Paul Cowan reminded everyone to act accordingly. Disturbances of any kind will result in those people leaving the courtroom, he said before the hearing began. Two babies had to be taken out of the courtroom at the request of the judge, due to their noises.

Upon sentencing, Justice Ralph Hutchinson, of Nanaimo, B.C. extended his deepest sympathy to the father and his daughters for their loss. Judging from the victim impact statements and the outbursts in court, he said, "I doubt the punishment will satisfy those family members."

But, he said, the courts must impose sentences that are fair and appropriate when measured against the other sentences that are imposed by other courts. He listed the sentencing principles set out in the Criminal Code that guide the courts in making their decisions.

Sentencing offenders for manslaughter is recognized by the court as sometimes difficult because it can take many forms. There is no minimum sentence for the offence, unless it's committed with a firearm. The maximum sentence is life imprisonment.

Crown prosecutor Sue Bogle argued during the sentencing hearing that Ralph Klassen should receive a sentence that falls in the high end of the range. The Crown was seeking a punishment of eight to 12 years. She took into consideration that the accused has spent nearly 15 months in pre-trial custody.

The nature of the relationship and of the unlawful act are aggravating factors in the case, she said. "Violence inflicted on a spouse is a significant breach of trust," Bogle said. The marital bed "is a place where one should feel the safest and most secure."

She noted some of the facts surrounding the killing. The offender had initiated the attack by strangling his wife with his hands. His hands were placed so tightly around her throat that he bruised his thumbs. Ralph Klassen then removed a pillow case from a nearby pillow on the bed and used it as a ligature. The victim was found by the RCMP with the weapon still around her neck.

"This ... was clearly a one-sided attack," the Crown said. There had been no signs of struggle.

The jurors had accepted that Ralph Klassen's actions were a result of his becoming very emotional and losing control after his wife uttered some biting comments. The jurors believed that the man's awareness, actions and ability to make choices were all impaired by his upset state.

He had written an apology note following the killing, then attempted to kill himself by driving his vehicle into a moving truck.

The judge had ruled that the defence of provocation would not be put to the jury.

Said Bogle: "He (Klassen) chose to take his emotions that evening - whether they were anger, jealousy or dependency - out on Susan Klassen, his spouse."

The Crown read portions of the victim impact statements aloud in court. They were filed by the father, five sisters, a niece and nephew, and a friend. Each conveyed a sense of loss, and a sense of a breach of trust.

The father, who lent support to his daughters during the trial, spoke of protecting his children while they were growing up. He recalled trying to teach and nurture them, and guide them on to the proper life path. The father wrote about giving each of his babies away to another man on their wedding days, hoping that those husbands would protect his daughters the same way he did. The Klassens had married in his Edmonton back yard in1982.

"I trusted this man with my daughter," Burke wrote in his statement. " I feel as though a part of me is being ripped from my heart."

But defence lawyer Ed Horembala reminded the judge that his client had to be sentenced for his actions. The courts cannot measure the value of a human life in terms of imprisonment, he said. "Obviously, the grief is severe, but no more severe - and I say this with great respect for the family - than the grief every family has for the victim," said Horembala during his brief submissions.

Ralph Klassen is a well-educated man with no history of violence nor criminal activity. He has two degrees in theology, and worked as a Baptist minister in Mackenzie, B.C. for a short time in the 1980s.

Horembala asked the court to consider a sentence of three to five years. He provided the judge with a similar court case which saw a five-year sentence. The offender had not applied for bail release following his arrest. As well, said Horembala, the man has always accepted responsibility for his actions.

The husband had become distraught after it became obvious to him that his wife no longer needed him, the jury, had heard. The Klassens were unable to have children due to his sexual dysfunction. The jury determined that her rejection of his love and the false belief that she might be involved with another man had caused him to snap.

"This is a tragic case," the judge said, describing the Klassens as serious, principled and respected members of the community.

The couple handled their differences with restraint, and conducted their arguments in a civil way, he said. The numerous letters they had written one another were one of the ways they attempted to work out their problems in the least hurtful way possible, he said.

The remarks Susan Klassen is alleged to have made to her husband prior to the strangulation were not - to an outside observer - sufficient to be provocative in law, he had ruled. "But, they were taken by him as a final rejection. They triggered the reaction that resulted in the death of his wife."

Hutchinson accepted the offender's remorse as genuine. Klassen had cried countless times after his wife's death and during the trial. The husband recalled in court only patchy details of the early-morning events of November 1995. But, the jury had given the man the benefit of the doubt.

The judge ordered a 10-year firearms prohibition. He also ordered that the photographs - including those of the deceased woman - be returned to the Crown to be disposed of following the 30-day appeal period. After the sentencing, the accused was once again escorted out of the courtroom.

"Nobody loves you, Ralph!" one of the sisters yelled at him as he walked past her. "They still love Susan. This community hates you; revel in it! You're going to have to live with it for the rest of your life."

In giving his reasons for decision the judge said the Crown's decision to reject the attempted manslaughter plea at the onset of the trial "was completely Justified and should attract no criticism."

Hutchinson commended both lawyers for their "able and fair presentations" and "high professional standards."

Horembala and Crown prosecutor Judy Hartling both declined commenting on the verdict and the sentence.

The Crown office is investigating whether it will appeal any of the decisions, Hartling said this morning.

1997 - Klassen Appeal Dismissed

A trio of Supreme Court of Canada justices dismissed a leave to appeal Ralph Klassen's sentence today. Their decision has left his former wife's loved ones crestfallen - but steadfast.

In September, the federal Department of Justice announced plans to apply to appeal the controversial five-year prison term handed down to Klassen after he was convicted of manslaughter.

The 46-year-old Whitehorse man strangled his former wife, Susan, to death in a fit of jealous rage on Nov. 2, 1995.

Chief Justice Antonio Lamer, Justice Peter Cory and Madame Justice Beverly McLachlin handed down their decision to dismiss the application this morning in Ottawa. No reasons were given, as is customary.

"It's very upsetting," Susan's sister, Brenda McDonald, said in an interview from Edmonton this morning. "I just don't understand how a country like Canada can have laws that continually excuse violence."

The decision to disallow an appeal quashes a chance of the much-disputed case going to the highest court in the land. However, McDonald hopes it opens the door for her to meet with federal Justice Minister Anne McLellan (who refused a meeting until the case was resolved) and keep fighting.

"This is it for Ralph Klassen," said McDonald, who wept all over again after hearing this morning's news. "He knows he meant to kill Susan, and he know's he's gotten away with it."

Both McDonald and Smith plan to keep battling to get victims more recognition. "I just find this frightening. We need to work harder than ever now," Shelley Smith, a friend of Susan's, said in Whitehorse after learning of the decision. "This is disappointing, not only for myself, but for a number of women in abusive relationships."

The courts send a clear message to abusers with light sentences, said Smith. She's heard horror stories about rashes of calls to crisis lines after similar sentences come down. Abusers make reference to the cases, and clip articles on them.

They warn women to stay in line or they'll kill them, and spend only four or five years in jail for the crime. "(Abuse victims) fear for their lives. They fear the abuse will escalate," Smith said. "We're excusing violence committed out of anger."

Smith and McDonald began a battle to toughen sentences in cases of spousal homicide after Klassen's trial. Said Smith: "The sentences are supposed to provide a deterrent ... instead, short sentences make abusers feel like they are justified in their actions; that what they are doing isn't that bad."

Smith felt they were making headway a few months ago after amassing about 15,000 signatures on a petition, launching a web site, and lobbying justice officials. They began to pour on the effort after an appeal of Klassen's case was dismissed by a trio of B.C.-Yukon Appeal Court justices last June. Smith felt they were reaching people.

"This case is talked about a lot in Ottawa - a lot of people have looked into it, and they are really disappointed about the outcome," said Smith. "We are quite pleased."

Susan (Burke) Klassen's devout sister vowed not to give up until the case went to the Supreme Court of Canada so evidence of Klassen's past that was never used during the trial could be introduced.

McDonald tried contacting the federal justice minister - even meeting with the deputy minister last month. "Susan had every right to live," the Edmonton woman said in an interview earlier this year about the beloved occupational therapist, well-known for her work with the territory's annual storytelling festival.

She and her supporters endured slams from lawyers and other legal officials, who have said the women just don't understand that the decisions must be based on precedents and rules of law. However, the women refused to cave in.

Finally, there was an appeal. During an appeal of the case - which failed - a federal Crown argued in a Yukon court that Klassen's sentence is too short and should be doubled. Federal Crown prosecutor David Frankel urged three justices to rethink the way spousal homicides are sentenced.

In their final judgment, Chief Justice Allan McEachern, Justice David Hinds and Thomas Braidwood said they had to dismiss the appeal based on the evidence they heard in court, commenting on the lack of any sign of Klassen's previous violent tendencies.

"Since his sentence, there has been some adverse publicity in the local media about the accused having some violent propensities, but no such evidence was presented in the trial ... we are confined to the evidence actually presented at the trial."

Last May 28, the Star reported that a court document filed in Manitoba decades ago offered some insight into Klassen's past. The July 1977 divorce petition says Klassen "tried to choke" his first wife, who eventually sought divorce on the ground of "physical or mental cruelty."

Susan's family was incensed that this information never made it to trial and that the former Baptist minister was never charged for driving into a propane truck on the Mayo Road in an attempt to kill himself.

After the first appeal was dismissed, McDonald was shaken and upset. She said, "I think women should be absolutely appalled and terrified. You are a piece of property; you are a possession when you walk down the aisle. It's unbelievable," said the Edmonton woman, who's struggled to change laws around spousal homicides since her sister's death.

The B.C.-Yukon Appeal Court justices' final decision focused on the evidence around the pivotal moment before Klassen strangled his estranged wife with a pillow case.

In court, Klassen said a disparaging remark was made about his low sperm count. He said there was some suggestion of his wife's relationship with another man during their separation. "How do they know? ... " said a sobbing McDonald after the trial. "He's a killer, and he's not going to lie?"

For Susan's family, the words were difficult to read because the defence of provocation was not allowed. In the reasons for the dismissal, the justices make it clear the incident which allegedly sparked Klassen's rage was not an excuse for his actions. "We mention these facts not to assign blame upon the deceased, but merely to explain the facts. There is nothing to suggest the deceased was responsible for her wholly-unnecessary death."

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