Memoirs of a Domestic Violence Murder Trial

Dawn Novak's headshot

Dawn Novak

Dawn has worked for over 30 years as a special education teacher and is the author of the document "A Constructive Analysis of the Murder of Natalie Novak" which was used for new policing courses at Wilfred Laurier University as well as the police colleges in Aylmer and Orillia. She also established the Natalie Novak Fund for the Education and Prevention of Relationship Violence and spearheaded an educational video called 'If Only: Nat's Story', which has been viewed by tens of thousands of students throughout Ontario as well as police, corrections services, victims and other agencies. Dawn was awarded the Ontario Attorney General's Victim Services Award of Distinction in 2013.

On December 6th we remember 14 young women who were killed at École Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989. We never forget that they were killed because they were women. We move through a cycle from remembrance to action and back to remembrance. Each year there are new names that are read out in public spaces on December 6th of the women who have been killed in our communities since the last remembrance.
 
Dawn and Ed Novak have worked for change since the murder of their beloved Natalie in 2006. You can join their work for social change by taking action yourself. Learn to recognize the warning signs of woman abuse. Learn about the risk factors that tell you the situation is getting worse. Engage your loved ones in conversation about how we can support one another to prevent more tragedies.  We are the neighbours, friends, family members and co-workers who make the difference. Every action counts.

Dawn Novak is the mother of Natalie Novak. Natalie was stabbed to death in a house in Toronto, where she was living while attending Ryerson University. An ex-boyfriend was charged with first degree murder. Since the death of Natalie, Dawn as made domestic violence advocacy her mission.

Dawn & Natalie

Many years have passed since my daughter Natalie, was murdered, yet over and over again I will become transfixed by the news of a woman’s murder trial.  Most recently the trials of Laura Babcock in Hamilton and the triple murders of Anastasia Kuzyk, Nathalie Warmerdam, and Carol Culleton being heard in Ottawa have preoccupied me. I identify with the family members and friends sitting in those courtrooms and enduring the indignities of a murder trial.  Each day has the potential of devastation or personal annihilation. What will be said, what will be learned.

The first degree murder trial for the stabbing death and mutilation of our twenty year old daughter Natalie (Natalia) began in Jan 2009 and lasted until April 2009. 

I protect and secure these trial memories deep within my core self. Most of these memories are unbearable and unthinkable truths yet realities. None of them are allowed to slip out into my conscious awareness.  I wish they did not exist. Without planning or conscious permission any number of these soul crushing truths has the capacity to slither out and undermine me.  

I am learning to retell pieces of what happened during trial and to keep my emotion separated from the hard truths.  The line is thin between what the heart and the head know and it is frequently exhausting just to maintain my balance between them.

Our case took two and half years to come to trial.

I attended each and every day of trial, accompanied by family members.  We would leave the warmth of home and community in Muskoka to attend court in Toronto from Monday to Friday. 

Early in the proceedings there were lengthy discussions regarding information that would be allowed into trial as evidence and information the jury would never hear. Deals were thrashed out by councils;

… I trade you a 911 call for an undocumented statement as fact. The tone was being set, the rules were being laid out, events and people were receiving labels and placed on witness lists, sides were drawn and the contest began.  The story of Natalie’s life and death was being weighed, and judged and timed and costed and classified.

Natalie Novak

One discussion actually centered around which autopsy photo the jury could see.

“… but what about her eyes ...  yes they seem to just look out at you ...  that may be a problem ...  should we use a black box across them or perhaps a line.” 

Did they not realize what that meant. My little girl died looking at her killer and his weapon. Unspeakable fear, unspeakable betrayal. I listened stiff and frozen.

They argued about the merits of an object versus a photo.  Should the jury see the actual tee shirt worn by the victim at the time of death or a photo of it.

 I saw it. I will never unsee it.

 It told the whole story of her killing. Like tracing paper the shirt recorded the systematic punctures into her body, the number, the location, by the placement of knife holes in her shirt. When l saw that tee shirt l thought they were mistaken because it was brown. Natalie did not care for brown and rarely wore it. “It is not brown, that is blood.“ l realized it was Natalie’s shirt.

Only myself and that shirt were in that courtroom. I knew that shirt. l had washed and hung it out on my clothesline to dry. I had folded it and put it in her drawer.  It would never be clean now.  I listened stiff and frozen.

They brought the killing knife into the courtroom one day. Described as a large bloodstained butcher type knife when the police recovered it.  I could not look at it.  When it was in the courtroom I became undone.  My fear of the accused escalated to terror when he and the weapon were united in the same space.  Would it fly to his hands on mental command.  Would it glow in the presence of him? I listened to the story of the weapon.  The killer used it to slash and pierce my daughter’s defenseless body again and again.  He continued even when life had left her body.

The day we met the pathologist that performed Natalie’s autopsy was a dreaded day. Nothing can prepare a person to hear such information. Dr. Rose skillfully cataloged the number and types of wounds, the depths of the wound paths, the damage to her underlying organs and tissues and the location of each wound.

I heard each word she said and I tried to create meaning to the chaos in my head, to understand what was the end of Natalie’s life. How much did she suffer. How long. There were sharp force injuries incised to her neck and face, that means cutting and slicing through her skin and then there are the sharp force injuries by stabbing into the flesh. 

I understood she tried to defend herself.  Her left arm, wrist, hand and leg were  marked and slashed at.  I know she tried to run at first because he stabbed her in the back.  After that early initial strike Natalie would be unable to scream because her lung was perforated and collapsed.  My beautiful baby girl.  Nine significant stab wounds destroying her aorta and heart, both her lungs, her liver and diaphragm.  The deepest wound was ten centimeters. That depth if straight would most likely pass completely through her and impale on the floor. 

There were two significant incised wounds across her neck and face.  All underlying structures within her neck were involved.  She was close to being decapitated.

Natalie was butchered with that large bloodstained butcher type knife.  Her final moments will never be less harrowing or traumatic for me.  Those words were spoken and recorded those days.  Those truths exist. The information learned is scorched into my being.  Moving forward will never again be easy, not with those truths.

Dawn & Natalie

At the center of every domestic homicide trial there will be the victim’s family members and friends listening and sitting stiff and frozen.  Horror, distress and despair may be visible on their faces but they will appear to be stoic, they may cry silently, or bow their heads, or cover their faces.  Family are not allowed to create visible or audible influences on the court.  Tenacity, endurance and a resolution to honour the loved one that was taken gets you through.  They will never unhear what they have heard in those courtrooms.

In recognition of all the family and friends that must continue to reconcile the unjust taking of their daughter, or mother or sister or a friend and still continue to move forward.


Additional Resources:

Helping Abused Women

Warning Signs of Domestic Abuse

Community Resources