TORONTO—A Canadian judge's decision to exempt a father from mandatory minimum sentencing in the killing of his severely disabled daughter has sent a chill through the country's disabled rights community and anti-euthanasia activists.
In a Dec. 1 ruling, Judge Ted Noble of the Court of Queen's Bench said sentencing Saskatchewan farmer Robert Latimer, 44, to the minimum 10-year prison term in the premeditated killing of his 12-year-old daughter Tracy, would constitute excessive punishment. Latimer was found guilty of second-degree murder.
“It is my judgment,” Noble wrote in his decision, “that even though the offense of murder is the gravest of all crimes in our law, that the circumstances established by the evidence as to why and how [Latimer] committed this compassionate act of homicide, when taken together with his personal characteristics, the caring role he played as Tracy's father, and as an otherwise law-abiding citizen who is respected within the community despite what he did, his conviction does not warrant the imposition of the 10-year minimum sentence because it would be unjust, unfair, and far too excessive.”
Noble's use of the expression “compassionate act of homicide,” coupled with his lenient sentencing of Latimer, has provoked consternation among disabled rights activists and those promoting greater respect for all human life. Many have labeled the sentence a travesty of justice and are calling for an immediate appeal.
Noble invoked the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to grant Latimer a rare constitutional amendment to the mandatory minimum sentence. Canadian judges have authority to bypass mandatory sentences if they believe they are in conflict with the Canadian Charter. He sentenced Latimer to two years less a day. Latimer will spend the first year in a provincial prison and the second year confined to his farm in Wilkie, Saskatchewan. Some believe he will be a free man in just eight months.
Church leaders and pro-life activists fear the sentence has set a dangerous precedent in the justice system's attitude toward the murder of disabled persons. Unlike assisted suicide cases, Tracy Latimer gave no indication of a desire to die. Although she experienced pain and discomfort, there were some suggestions during the trial that she was a happy and mischievous child who responded no differently than others in chronic care centers.
Canada's disabled community is also troubled by Latimer's appeal to compassion as a mitigating factor in murder cases. Throughout the trial, Latimer's defense attorney, Mark Brayford, argued that Latimer acted out of compassion when he killed his daughter. He also said his client acted to put an end to years of physical pain for Tracy.
Latimer admitted to police that, in October 1993, he placed his daughter in the cab of the family pickup truck, and attached a hose from the exhaust pipe to the truck interior. Tracy died of carbon monoxide poisoning within seven minutes.
It was the second murder trial for Latimer. His original conviction for second-degree murder in 1994 was declared invalid when it was learned that the Crown prosecutor had questioned jurors as to their views on mercy killing and abortion. The original prosecutor is awaiting trial on obstruction of justice charges.
Canada's Catholic bishops are among several voices arguing that the Latimer sentence gives the impression of two-tiered justice system.
“By making an exception in this case and not awarding the mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years, the court has sent a disturbing message that the life of someone with disabilities is worth less than that of others,” said Archbishop Adam Exner of Vancouver, chairman of the bishops’ Catholic Organization for Life and Family.
Archbishop Exner said the country is embarking on “a very dangerous path” when murder is regarded as an act of compassion. The archbishop said Tracy Latimer, and all disabled persons, require special care and protection.
“Without disputing the sincerity of Mr. Latimer's motive, we are most troubled by the notion that murder is a way of exercising compassion,” the prelate said. “There are countless examples of friends and families of people with disabilities showing compassion by affirming the fullness of their human dignity and sharing their suffering, as overwhelming as that may be at times.”
Archbishop Exner said the Latimer case should serve as a reminder for the country's legal, social, and medical systems to exercise compassion and respect for all human life.
Bishop James Weisgerber of the diocese of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, said the case is especially significant because Robert Latimer acted on his own accord to end the life of his daughter.
“Tracy had no way to agree to this decision, it was done for her,” the bishop told The Canadian Press. He said it is inappropriate for the justice system to consider the motive of a person accused of killing another.
The Catholic bishops’ views are seconded by several groups working to promote respect for life and family in Canada.
Cheryl Eckstein, executive director of the Surrey, British Columbia-based Compassionate Healthcare Network (CHN), told the Register that the Latimer decision is another step on the “slippery slope” of disposable humanity.
Eckstein, who suffers from a chronic muscle disorder, said the decision has provoked fear among all disabled Canadians. “This is nothing but a derailment of justice,” she said. “The notion of killing the disabled for compassionate reasons is a travesty.”
Eckstein rejected arguments that Latimer acted out of mercy in dealing with his daughter's physical disability.
“Tracy could never have made that decision for herself,” she said. “The idea that she was suffering doesn't justify what was done. Tracy Latimer was simply put out of her father's misery.”
The Latimer sentence should serve as a nationwide incentive for groups representing the disabled to come together with one voice, Eckstein suggested. “We are really one-minded about this. Tracy Latimer had a right to life and justice and she was not served.”
Jim Hughes, president of the Toronto-based Campaign Life Coalition, said the decision is especially frightening for its misplaced use of compassion. “In all these cases, people seem to think the motivation of compassion is a mitigating factor,” he said. “The trouble is, whether a killer's motivation is malice or mercy, his victim is just as dead. The law is supposed to protect individuals and society from those who would play God with other people's lives.”
Officials with the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD) have called on the province of Saskatchewan to appeal the Latimer sentence. “In reducing the sentence, the court is clearly saying that it has sympathy for the convicted murderer, and to a chilling degree is validating similar actions against people with disabilities,” said Hugh Scher, chairman of the council's human rights committee.
The Latimer decision could not have come at a worse time for those concerned about protection of the disabled.
In Nova Scotia, a physician who killed a 66-year-old cancer patient recently had murder charges reduced to manslaughter. Many believe the reduced charges were the result of a massive outpouring of public sympathy for the accused.
Similarly in Quebec, a woman received a suspended sentence for killing her autistic son. In reducing the charges, the Quebec court recognized that the woman had undergone tremendous emotional distress at the time of her action. The disabled community, however, said emotional distress is no excuse for imposing the death penalty on an innocent person, especially one requiring additional care and protection.
The disabled community is also troubled by favorable reaction to the Latimer sentencing in the mainstream Canadian media. Some commentators have praised Justice Noble for a well-thought-out decision that reflects sympathy for Robert Latimer's dilemma. There have also been calls for the Canadian government to institute a third-degree murder charge that would provide more lenient sentences and permit the use of mercy as a defense in some homicide cases.
Meanwhile, some medical ethics authorities have suggested the Latimer ruling officially sanctions euthanasia for victims of cerebral palsy and other disabled Canadians. Mark Pickup, one of Canada's most prominent disabled rights activists, said the Latimer decision reflects a public policy favoring quick fixes and easy answers.
Pickup, who also suffers from cerebral palsy, called the Latimer decision a dangerous precedent. “Will handicapped children like Tracy be welcome in the 21st century?” he asked. “It's highly reminiscent of Germany 60 years ago when handicapped children and adults were routinely euthanized. It was done for compassionate reasons too—to destroy life unworthy of living.”
Mike Mastromatteo is based in Toronto, Canada.