Disabled and anti-euthanasia activists
alarmed at treatment of attempted mercy-killer

By Paul Tuns
The Interim

The dangerous and disturbing trend of treating disabled victims of crimes as second-class citizens unworthy of the protection of the law was evident in the sentencing of Lisa Thompson on Nov. 30, 1999.

Thompson, a 37-year-old divorced mother of four from Niagara Falls, Ont., tried to kill her six-year-old daughter, Brandy Lee, in November 1998. Brandy, who has cerebral palsy, survived a potentially lethal combination of prescription drugs administered through her feeding tube. Thompson turned herself into the police, thinking that she had successfully killed Brandy.

Justice Paul Forestell gave Thompson a conditional sentence of two years less a day, a punishment agreed to by Thompson’s lawyer Charles Ryall and Crown attorney Alan Root. She also has a curfew, must undergo counselling and is not allowed unsupervised visits with her daughter, although she has an unlimited access to her three sons.

University of Alberta Professor Dick Sobsey is quoted in a Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD) release: “Failure to provide equal protection of the law is the worst form of discrimination.” His research on crimes against people with disabilities led him to conclude that “giving any lesser penalty will put thousands of people with disabilities in greater danger of death and violence.”

The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of Ontario (EPCO) wrote to Ontario Attorney-General Jim Flaherty, asking him to review the case, because the conditional sentence is “far too lenient and may create a climate of tolerance” for killing children, thus establishing a “precedent for other cases of neglect, abuse, murder or attempted murder of dependent or disabled persons in Ontario.” So far, the attorney-general’s office has not responded.

EPCO executive director Alex Schadenberg told The Interim that “Justice has not been done in this case.” He said the judge looked at the state of the victim, not the actions of her attempted murderer. He gave Thompson a “scolding, in effect saying ‘don’t do that again Lisa.'”

Hugh Scher, chair of the Human Rights Committee of the CCD and counsel to EPCO, told The Interim that there is one law for able-bodied Canadians and another set of laws for disabled Canadians. As Schadenberg points out his organization’s letter to the attorney-general, this is a clear violation of Section 15(1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom, which states, “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, or mental or physical disability.”

Before handing down his lenient sentence, Justice Forestell said, “The court has the greatest respect for persons with physical handicaps and delays,” but “consideration [must] be given to caregivers of the handicapped.” Scher says such language and the sentence itself improperly assigns victim status to the perpetrator of the crime.

Shadenberg says that there was no advocate for Brandy. The defense and the Crown agreed to the conditional sentence. Furthermore, the Crown made no attempt to refute claims by Thompson’s lawyer that Family and Children’s Services or other community supports were unwilling to help, allowing Thompson to be painted as the victim.

Family and Children’s Services Niagara representative Ann Godfrey could not answer specific questions about the Thompson case, but did tell The Interim that the agency “responds immediately” to requests for help, provides medical and community resources, and follows up to see how the family is doing. Godfrey also noted recent newspaper reports indicating that since Brandy was placed in foster care, she has been doing quite well and that she no longer suffers from the visual impairment and bowel disorder that she had while in the care of her mother.

When sentencing Lisa Thompson, Justice Forestell said he took into consideration the stress she faced, the “fact” that she sought community support and was allegedly denied help, and that she has since displayed signs of remorse for her actions. Many critics of the lenient sentence say that theoretically these might be mitigating circumstances for some sort of reduced sentence, but she still should have served time in jail.

Scher says communities must provide support for families with disabled children but that the failure to provide support does not justify the taking of a child’s life. “The issue isn’t a lack of support,” he says. “Its equal protection of the law for all Canadians.”