Robert Latimer, the Saskatchewan farmer convicted of the 1993 killing of his 12 year old severely handicapped daughter Tracy, is up for day parole on December 8. Legal experts say that it is extremely likely he will get it. Although it’s certainly an issue that sharply divides Canadians, public sentiment appears strongly on the side of Latimer, and those connected to the court system have shrugged their shoulders in helpless sympathy through the years at the case of a man for whom the law had no loopholes available.
In his second trial (the first was quashed by the Supreme Court because of jury interference by RCMP and prosecution), Latimer was found guilty of second degree murder for asphyxiating his daughter, an act normally abhorrent beyond comprehension to a loving parent, but brought on in Latimer’s claim, out of love to stop her steadily increasing suffering. In a cruel path of legal pitfalls, his jury was strangely not aware that the Canadian minimum for second degree murder is 25 years, 10 years without full parole, as they recommended a sentence of one year jail and one year house arrest to the presiding judge. Confronted with what they had inadvertently done in the aftermath of the trial, several jury members wept. Only too aware of the jury intent versus the cold Canadian law, the judge attempted to foil the mandatory requirements with a ruling that the sentence was “cruel and unusual punishment” and grounds for exemption, but this was overturned in appeal and this supported by the Supreme Court. With the usual legal wrangling and court time, Latimer and his wife and other two children spent years following the charge dealing with the court system, and he only began his 25 year sentence following the Supreme Court decision in 2001, with some allowance for time served.
This whole issue is one of several difficult areas Canadian law attempts to deal with, often unsuccessfully. Law is clear when money is stolen, seen to be stolen, and clearly it’s proven who the thief is (though even this flounders when the theft is for a loaf of bread). When the law strides onto the grounds of apparent crime in areas where words like “love”, “beliefs”, “suffering”, “morals”, and even “choice” find their way into the dialogue, the best of us waffle back and forth in our opinions, depending on the circumstances. It takes a Solomon-like judgment to find pure truth in the chaos.
Latimer admitted that he had killed his daughter. Tracy was suffering from an extreme form of cerebral palsy, and was deteriorating. The family indicated their belief that she was in pain most of the time, and because of her condition and her anti-seizure drugs, little could be offered in the way of pain medication. She had endured numerous operations, including the insertion of rods to control her spine, and was due for another one to remove her thigh bone. Because of her condition, her joints were separating, and medical relief was based on the gradual removal of her extremity bones as they separated and caused pain. Tracy’s mental age was judged to be that of an infant, and at 12 years old she weighed only 40 pounds.
On the other hand, much has been said by spokespersons for the disabled community, calling any easy sentence for Latimer “open season on the disabled”. While I think that each case has to be looked at on its own, certainly they were and are right to show reaction to anyone taking the life of a disabled person as judgment of that person’s happiness in life.
Sentencing in crime generally looks at two factors— protection of the public, and punishment of the criminal. Is Latimer a danger to the public? No. Is he likely to ever kill anyone again? No. Is he any danger to his own family, his remaining children? No. So sentencing turns to punishment. What is fit punishment for taking the life of a child that he loved dearly? On that issue the court flounders, as do Canadians in general. We’re torn on the one hand by the need not to bless these situations, not to somehow let creep into our fabric that these kind of things can go on, will be tolerated, that we will look the other way the next time it happens, even that it is somehow okay with us, that what takes place in the family garage stays in the family garage. We know that’s not a stance we wish to take. There is a line of truth here somewhere– if only we could find it.
By the time Robert Latimer is completely freed of legal restraint, he and his family will have endured public scrutiny, threats and intimidation by some members of the public, arrests, interviews, testifying, incarceration, and control for over 30 years, since the starting of any parole on a life sentence makes it far from over (he only has day parole possible, returning to a halfway house at nights, until 2010, and then can go to full parole while still under the cloud of the 25 year sentence). Certainly any normal life in the developing years with their other two children has been destroyed. Certainly their enduring marriage is a testimony to love and faith in what they believe.
It’s too late for Robert Latimer. He’s getting nothing “off” by coming up for parole December 8; that’s the normal situation on a life sentence. In 2010, when he can likely return to his farm in Saskatchewan, it will be 17 years since the death of Tracy, and Latimer will be 57 years old. When he finally gets clear of the 25 year sentence, he will be about 72.
There have been frequent appeals to the present government, mainly since it is a change of leadership since Latimer’s court cases, but with the Conservative agenda on “getting tough”, it’s unlikely that there will be any changes should another Robert Latimer emerge from the Canadian population in the next while.
There is an expression in legal circles: “hard cases make for bad law”– and the Latimer family have lived through a demonstration of that.