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Victim of a husband's jealous rage|
BY DAVID J. KRAJICEK
Susan Klassen found her place in the world in Whitehorse, the isolated city of 20,000 hearty souls on the Alaska Highway in the Canadian Yukon.
She arrived there in 1990, at age 30, after eight years of following her husband, Ralph, around Canada as he tried to find a job that would stick.
He built a fine record of occupational failure - Baptist minister, car salesman, photographer, carpenter and truckdriver, among others.
Trained as an occupational therapist, Susan landed a good job as coordinator of therapy for a care facility in Whitehorse. She forged new friendships and sank roots in her new hometown.
Born into a large family in Edmonton, Alberta, Susan had a theatrical bent, and she began to cultivate that talent in Whitehorse through the art of storytelling.
She could transfix an audience as she spun poignant tales, often about her own family. A friend later described Susan with a list of flattering adjectives: "serene, gentle, thoughtful, regal, beautiful, graceful."
She performed in the early '90s at the Yukon International Storytelling Festival, and she began to branch out, taking roles in local theater productions.
She built a wonderful life away from home. But then there was Ralph.
They had married in 1982, planning to have children together. But Ralph, briefly married in the mid-'70s and eight years older than Susan, had struggled with fertility problems - a low sperm count that left him feeling inadequate.
He had begun to withdraw by the time they got to Whitehorse, holing up at the house they were building in Lake Laferge, north of town.
He seemed to resent Susan's success. He was jealous of her friendships and demanded that she focus on him. Susan had grown weary of his neediness. And then there was his temper.
In 1992, the punctual Susan was habitually late for rehearsals for a stage play. She broke down in tears one day, explaining that Ralph was in a rage, pressuring her to resign the role so she could stay home with him.
Two years later, she missed her performances at the storytelling festival, revealing to friends that Ralph had again rampaged, insisting she belonged at his side.
In June 1995, Susan Klassen showed up at work with dark makeup around her eyes. It occurred to colleagues that she was trying to mask a shiner, and some wondered whether Ralph's abuse had become physical.
It seemed more than coincidence that she began to regard her marriage in the past tense at about the time she sported the black eye.
Susan managed to get Ralph to agree to a six-month separation in September 1995. She paid for him to move to Alberta, 1,000 miles away, hoping it was a first step toward ending the noxious relationship.
But within days he was yammering by phone that he was ready to come home. After barely a month apart, Ralph showed up at Susan's door on Nov. 1, 1995.
He said Susan invited him in. When he suggested they go to bed, he said she replied, "What's the point in making love? Your body is only dead sperm anyway."
Friends said such an unmerciful comment would have been out of character. But she wasn't able to give her side of the story.
Late that night, probably while Susan was sleeping, Ralph strangled her with a grip so vengeful that he was left with disfiguring bruises on his thumbs.
He scribbled a note that read, "I'm sorry that I went into a jealous fit of rage." He then got in his car and attempted to kill himself by turning into the path of a speeding propane truck.
He failed at suicide, too, escaping unharmed.
Klassen tried to plead guilty to manslaughter, but prosecutor Sue Bogle opted for a second-degree murder charge and a jury trial.
Twists and turns
There the case took a curious twist.
Canadian law allows what is known as the provocation defense in spousal murders. In essence, it excuses slayings over adultery, based on the time-worn common-law concept that a man can't be held accountable for his rage when his wife is unfaithful.
Ralph Klassen's defense seized upon the provocation argument. He testified that Susan taunted him on their last night together by revealing that she had begun seeing another man.
The judge, Ralph Hutchinson, instructed jurors that while they could not consider the formal version of the provocation defense in Klassen's case, they should consider the "common law defense of rage."
The jury quickly returned a guilty verdict - for manslaughter, not murder.
Bogle asked for a sentence of 12 years. But Susan Klassen's loved ones were shocked when Hutchinson gave the killer just five years.
"Judging from the victim impact statements and the outbursts in court, I doubt the punishment will satisfy those family members," the judge smugly added.
He was right.
"It's unbelievable," Susan Klassen's sister, Brenda McDonald, told reporters. "It's a very scary country we live in if men's anger, simple anger, means if you kill somebody, it's almost okay."
McDonald mounted a petition campaign to eliminate the provocation defense - common law or otherwise - as an archaic license to kill for an abusive spouse. Politicians paid lip service, then let the issue quietly die.
Meanwhile, Ralph Klassen's first wife stepped forward after learning that he had testified that their divorce was due to "mutual incompatibility."
Elisabeth McLeod had a much different account. She said Klassen frequently beat and choked her, and she fled the marriage after just three months, fearing for her life.
On May 18, 2000, Ralph Klassen walked out of prison after serving about 4-1/2 years for strangling his second wife.
"It's been a blink of an eye," Brenda McDonald said. "It's hard for us to believe he gets to start a new life and we will never get over this. It's not fair."
[ Last edited by bhapataka at 2009-2-15 09:53 PM ]