Saskatchewan farmer who killed his disabled daughter now looks to the Supreme Court to overturn his ten-year sentence.
Robert Latimer’s conviction and jai sentence for the euthanasia killing of his disabled daughter, Tracy, has been upheld by the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal, but Latimer has been released from custody pending word on whether the Supreme Court of Canada will hear his appeal of the lower courts’ decisions. Three provincial appeal court judges ruled on July 18 that Robert Latimer was properly convicted of second-degree murder in Tracy’s death. All three reiterated that it is Parliament’s responsibility to review and change the law, not the courts. However, one judge, Chief Justice Edward Bayda, issued a minority opinion. While he agreed with the ruling as a whole, he argued that the sentence imposed was overly harsh.
The lower court had imposed the minimum sentence, i.e., imprisonment for life without chance of parole for 10 years. Judge Bayda wrote that this was “cruel and unusual punishment” violating section 12 of the Charter of Rights. This gives Latimer’s lawyer, Mark Brayford, a door through which to seek a higher court hearing.
Twelve-year-old Tracy Latimer was killed by exhaust fumes at the family farm near Wilkie, Saskatchewan, in October 1993. her father confessed to police shortly after she died, giving them full details on how he placed her in the cab of his pick-up truck while the rest of the family was at church, rigged up the exhaust pipe and then carried her back to her bed once she was dead. He said that he did it to relieve her pain and suffering.
Tracy was born with a severe form of cerebral palsy and at the time of her death was scheduled for more surgery to mend a dislocated hip. Although her disabilities could not be cured, doctors testifying at the trial stated that the proposed surgery would have made her more comfortable and were optimistic about Tracy’s situation.
The majority decision, written by Mr. Justice Calvin Tallis and concurred in by Mr. Justice Nicholas Shersobitoff, pointed to social attitudes towards the disabled. The judges said the motives of love or compassion would never be considered a defence if the victim were able bodied and pain free.
“This difference in approach between handicapped and non-handicapped children,” they wrote, directly reflects a sense that the life of a handicapped child is of significantly less value than the less of a non-handicapped child in extreme pain.” The law, they continued, does not allow “surrogate decision-making based on the assessments of the personal worth of social utility of another’s life or the value of that life to the individual involved or to others.”
They said that if the law is to change, it is for Members of Parliaments to change it: “It is open to Parliament to modify the existing law by appropriate legislation that establishes sentencing critieria for ‘mercy’ killing. In the meantime, it is not for the court to pass on the wisdom of parliament with respect to the range of penalties to be imposed on those found guilty of murder.”
In his dissent, Chief Justice Bayda referred to Latimer’s “obsession” with his daughter’s pain. He stated that the murder took place not because Tracy was disabled but “because Tracy was disabled but “because her father loved her too much to watch her suffer.”
Justice Bayda said that the original sentence imposed at trial provoked “a torrent of public outrage. To ignore it, in my respectful view, is to risk arrogance.” He also said that the sentence was too severe when compared with other recent euthanasia trials where the offenders were convicted but received suspended sentences or probation. Thirdly, he argued that Robert Latimer does not need rehabilitation, and is not a threat to society.
Latimer’s sentence, says Justice Bayda, is “grossly disproportionate to what would have been appropriate. The sentence amounts to the imposition of a cruel and unusual punishment and thus to a prima facie violation of Section 12 of the Charter.”
Pro-life groups and advocates for the disabled, however, were initially relieved that the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal upheld the conviction and sentence.
Grant Mitchell of People in Equal Participation told Canadian Press it means that “a disabled victim is as protected by criminal law as a non-disabled victim.”
Anna Desilets, executive director of Alliance for Life, said the ruling showed that “the premeditated taking of innocent human life is not to be condoned.” She added that the case makes it clear we need community support to help families who care daily for seriously ill or disabled relatives.
The Court’s references to possible changes in sentencing for crimes motivated by compassion, however, alarm those opposed to euthanasia.
Last month, the Senate Committee on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide recommended that Parliament consider creating a new category of murder, “compassionate homicide,” with lighter sentences for cases such as Latimer.
Hugh Scher, a constitutional lawyer and chairman of the human-right committee of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, said he is afraid of the Senate’s recommendation. “Who decides what’s merciful and compassionate?” he asked.
Campaign Life Coalition will keep euthanasia high on its list when parliament begins its next session, says president Jim Hughes. Over the summer, Campaign Life Coalition has been urging its supporters to meet their MPs in their ridings. “MPs need to know that the majority of Canadians are opposed to legalizing euthanasia,” Hughes states.
Hughes points out that sympathy for lesser sentencing in these kinds of cases probably has more to do with the growing outrage over the short sentences given to others convicted of vicious crimes.
“When we see Karla Homolka serving a minimum sentence for her complicity in unspeakable acts, we can understand this situation better. The problem is not that Robert Latimer received the sentence he did, the problem is that the Homolkas of this world are not viewed as receiving a punishment to fit their crimes,” says Hughes.