On November 16, a Saskatchewan jury took less than four hours to find Robert Latimer guilty of second degree murder in killing his disabled 12-year-old daughter, Tracy.
The verdict, and Justice Ross Wimmer’s imposition of a life sentence with no parole for 10 years, quickly became hotly debated in the media as supporters of legalized euthanasia protested that the sentence was too harsh for a man who was portrayed as a loving and caring father. Disability rights and pro-life groups, however, argue that killing is killing and to excuse it on the grounds of quality of life of the victim is a repulsive notion.
The facts about Tracy’s death were not challenged during the trial. On October 23, 1993, Robert Latimer had placed her in a pickup truck on the family farm, propped her up with rags, and piped exhaust fumes into the cab. When he was sure she was dead, he put her back in her bed. Tracy’s mother, Laura, discovered her body, on her return from church with her three other children. Mr. Latimer originally told police that Tracy had died in her sleep, but when an autopsy revealed the cause of death to be carbon monoxide poisoning, he confessed to the crime and showed police how he had rigged up the exhaust apparatus.
Tracy Latimer was severely disabled due to cerebral palsy. She had been cared for by her family at home for most of her life. However, her parents had placed her in a group home the summer before she died during her mother’s pregnancy. When she returned home in early October, she had lost a great deal of weight and was suffering pain from a dislocated hip. Surgery to repair the hip had been scheduled, but Tracy died before it could take place.
Defence lawyer Mark Brayford showed Robert Latimer to be a loving father who had participated fully in caring for Tracy since her birth. He claimed that Latimer was forced to kill her to end her suffering. “Robert Latimer was faced with no real options. Medical science kept his daughter alive,” Brayford told the jury. “The situation cried out for action.”
Despite videotaped evidence of his confession to police, including his recreation of how he rigged up the truck’s exhaust system, Latimer pleaded not guilty to first degree murder. His conviction on second degree murder – which does not involve planning or premeditation – would perhaps indicate that the jury showed some sympathy for Brayford’s portrayal of a man driven by compassion and love rather than evil.
Disability rights advocates, however, were relieved by the guilty verdict. Priti Shah, a lawyer with the Canadian Disability Rights Council, said, “People in similar conditions to Tracy’s felt very threatened by the possibility that he would be acquitted. Not to send him to prison would send a horrible message to disabled people that their lives are of no value, that they are meaningless to society.”
Public sympathy for Robert Latimer, Ms. Shah observed, had much to do with society’s prejudice against the disabled. She compared reaction in the Latimer case to that of Susan Smith, the mother who recently drowned her two young boys in South Carolina.
“Who are we to say that because the Smith boys were able-bodied that their lives were better than Tracy’s?” she asked.
“Society just accepts that because Tracy had a disability, she had no joy or quality to her life. Tracy is a symbol of the way society treats people with disabilities,” she said.
Some medical observers were puzzled by constant references to Tracy’s unremitting pain. Dr. Duane MacGregor, a neurologist who works with cerebral palsy children at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, told Maclean’s magazine that, based on her experience, she does not believe that Tracy could have been in pain all the time, even taking into account her dislocated hip.
Pro-life leaders joined with disability advocates in calling for a greater awareness of social responsibility to help parents caring for their disabled children. It can be physically exhausting and emotionally draining, said Dr. Mervyn Fox, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Western Ontario. He said that many parents in similar situations have told him they have thought about ending their children’s lives.
“It’s a very common feeling,” he said. “It’s a signal that they need support.”
But Brenda Bansecu, whose 10-year-old daughter has cerebral palsy, says that help is difficult enough to find in Regina, where she lives. It is next to impossible to find help in rural areas such as Wilkie, Saskatchewan, where the Latimers farm.
And yet assistance to such families is not only good social policy, it makes economic sense. In Ontario, it can cost up to $110,000 a year to care for a disabled person in an institution.
The Latimer case put the spotlight once more on euthanasia, just as the Special Senate Committee on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide wound down its public hearings. Liberal Senator Sharon Carstairs said that the Committee is only looking at euthanasia from the perspective of those who are mentally competent to request the killing, and would not be taking a case such as this into account.
Some newspaper editorialists, and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, are pressuring Justice Minister Allan Rock to revoke Latimer’s prison sentence and to change the law to allow judges to give lighter sentences for ‘mercy’ killings. Rock has said he does not favour changing the law.