It is understood that those with disabilities are faced with many disadvantages. When looking at children with disability one can see the vulnerability and dependency they have on their primary caregiver. Often the primary caregiver is the child’s parent. Within this relationship, the parent usually makes all health-related decisions on behalf of their child, with implied consent. However, Robert Latimer brought up the question of whether or not it just in the eye of the law for a parent to decide on ending their child’s suffering by ending their life. On October 24th, 1993, Robert Latimer chose to end the life of his 12-year-old daughter Tracy Latimer through carbon monoxide poisoning. Mr. Latimer was charged with second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 10 years. This analysis will use newspaper sources and scholarly literature to argue that the court’s decision to invoke the minimum sentence of 10 years without parole for Robert Latimer was a decision that threatened the protection of those with disabilities living in Canada. This will be done first by examining the case history, then looking at the media’s perspective for disabled groups, and lastly looking at the possible issues within the law.
Robert Latimer was a Saskatchewan farmer who lived with his wife and 4 children (Roach, 2001). On the Sunday of October 24th, 1993, while Robert’s wife and three other children went to church, he decided to murder his 12-year-old daughter through asphyxiation from carbon monoxide poisoning (Taylor, 2001). By just hearing these details one can conclude Robert to be a cold-blooded killer, however, his motive suggested otherwise to the courts. Latimer’s daughter Tracy suffered from cerebral palsy since birth. When Tracy was born she was pronounced clinically dead, losing oxygen to her brain causing severe brain damage (Reade, 1995). As a result of this trauma, she developed cerebral palsy which left her with no use of her arms or legs, becoming fully dependent on her parents for her care and daily activities (Reade, 1995). Most of Tracy’s days were spent in bed or propped in a wheelchair (Roach, 2001). Tracy underwent several surgeries, however leading up to her death Tracy’s mother testified that her daughter began on a downward spiral, recently baring the news that her daughter would have to undergo another surgery to remove part of her leg bone to reduce the pain in her hip (Perreaux, 1997). It was this news that acted as a final straw for Mr. Latimer. Latimer explained to the court that as a loving father, all he wanted was to put an end to his daughter’s pain and suffering (Perreaux, 1997). Latimer claimed he waited 12 days between deciding and committing the murder (Perreaux, 1997). With this confession it clear that this murder was planned and deliberate. However, although initially being charged with first-degree murder, both the options of manslaughter and first-degree murder were eliminated during the trial process and Latimer was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment with no possibility for parole for 10 years (Perreaux, 1997). This is the minimum sentence for second-degree murder. This Supreme Court final decision caused a media uproar, where several media outlets have analyzed this ruling and discussed the topic of euthanasia and disabled people.
Disability Advocates in Media
Euthanasia is defined as interventions intended to cause death (Gardner, 1998). Non-voluntary euthanasia describes specifically cases where the person dying did not decide to end their life (Gardner, 1998). Tracy is a victim of non-voluntary euthanasia. Because of her condition, she was unable to consent thus; Robert decided to end his daughter’s life against her will. The minimal sentence was decided upon based on the evidence that Latimer was, in fact, a loving father, and that the physical crime did not depict a brutal and painful death (Eisler, 1995). However, several media outlets discuss the two stances Canadians have taken. Several Canadians felt that this sentence was cruel and unusual since Latimer was a loving father who did not want to see his daughter suffer. In contrast, many Canadians saw the crime for what it was, pre-meditated murder (Taylor, 2001). People living with disabilities in Canada have fought hard for their basic human rights. By giving Latimer a lesser sentence it’s as if the court is suggesting it is OK to kill those with a disability when they become ‘too much to handle’ (McLaughlin, 1998). After the trial, several newspapers began to give voice to those with disabilities. Margaret Birrell believed that Latimer should have been charged with first-degree murder, being sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole for 25 years (Taylor, 2001). She points out how carefully Latimer planned his daughter’s death, and how he attempted to conceal the cause of death when she was first found (Taylor, 2001). She goes against the sympathized claims that Robert had no choice but to murder his daughter, arguing that several resources could have assisted in the care and the prolonging of Tracy Latimer’s life (Taylor, 2001). This is true, not all possible interventions were exhausted before deciding to murder Tracy. Her father did not take into consideration how Tracy felt; he just assumed her pain because she was disabled. Diaries that Mrs. Latimer kept before Tracy’s death were presented during the trial. The last entry reported that Tracy was happy, alert and cheerful six days before being murder (The Canadian Press, 1998). Not evidence which depicts someone who is suffering to the point that they want to end their life. This sentencing brings out the fear that the law accepts the killing of those who are disabled simply because their lives are viewed as less valuable based on their limitations (Taylor, 2001). This crime involved a lot of premeditation and in the end, a child was murdered.
The media sparks the question from disability advocates of whether or not, the sentencing would have been more serious if Tracy was not disabled and her father had just murdered her (Reade, 1995). The Supreme Court is giving the idea to the public that Tracy’s life was not as valuable and that her father’s actions were justified because in the public’s eye Tracy was not living a ‘good life’. During this time the difference between mercy killing and assisted suicide was clearly not understood. Assisted suicide is when a person wants to end their life and decides to get help in doing so (Bort, 1997). Robert Latimer was a caregiver who decided to take the life of his daughter and get a light sentence for doing so. To summarize the media’s perspective, Canadians with disabilities felt threatened by the light sentence and its message to the public that is it alright for a parent with good intentions to murder their child with a disability (Bort, 1997).
Issues within the Law
The Latimer Case tells us a lot about crime and punishment in Canada. Most of the media debates were centered around the justification of Latimer’s punishment and its effects on Canadians living with disabilities (Sneiderman, 1997). Latimer had his charges reduced from first degree to second-degree murder based on love and compassion. There is a need for the Canadian parliament to revisit their classification and punishment of murder (Sneiderman, 1997). Since Robert Latimer did not fit the image of a cold-blooded killer, with ‘psychopathic tendencies’ he was granted a more lenient sentence. During his trial the courts allowed Robert to give the idea that he had the right to decide to end his daughter’s life because of her lack of physical and intellectual abilities (Sneiderman, 1997). The courts explained how Robert was not a threat to the public and therefore a harsher sentence would have been seen as cruel and usual. In the end, the courts decided to give a minimum penalty to make the public happy, and deter others from committing a similar crime against the vulnerable (Sneiderman, 1997). This shows how the media and the concerns expressed by groups representing the disabled had some impact on the court’s final decision (Sneiderman, 1997). Although, it could be argued that giving the minimum sentence gives the idea that murdering someone who is disabled is less severe than murdering someone who is not. In this case, it seems that Latimer was granted mercy, based on the sympathy for a loving father who did what he needed to do. The judge in the Supreme Court made it clear that he wished he could give eligibility for parole within a year but that mandatory sentencing did not allow for it (Perreaux, 1997). Therefore, Latimer’s minimum sentencing was related to a lack of options. In the end, the law fails to recognize mercy killing or un-voluntary suicide, therefore it fails to protect those with disabilities. Because Latimer’s murder did not depict brutality and violence, the courts were unsure how to proceed with sentencing. However, if mercy killing/ un-voluntary suicide were recognized as their distinct forms of murder than punishment would be able to fit the crime.
In, conclusion several issues arose from the Robert Latimer Case. The key issue, however, is the court’s inability to protect the rights of those living with disabilities in Canada. Tracy Latimer was a 12-year-old battling cerebral palsy. She was described as happy and cheerful up until October, 24th 1993 when her father Robert Latimer decided to end her life. Mr. Latimer was first charged with first-degree murder however through several appeals the courts decided to acquit him from first-degree murder and charged him with second-degree murder, sentenced to 10 years without parole. This decision sparked controversy within the media. Several media outlets discussed the harshness of the sentencing since it was argued that Robert was a loving father to eliminate his daughter’s suffering. Those who advocated on behalf of Canadians living with disabilities thought otherwise. They believed that giving someone who admitted to a premeditative crime a minimum sentence opposed a threat to Canadians with disabilities. Giving the public the idea that murdering someone with a disability is less severe than murdering someone without a disability, giving permission for caregivers to decide their child’s life is less valuable because of their condition. In the end, there is a call for the Canadian parliament to revisit their murder laws and expand them to encompass specific cases of involuntary suicide and mercy killings. This way the crime can fit the punishment and mercy will not be granted in cases where the suspect does not fit the image of a ‘cold-blooded killer’.
- Bort, R. (1997, December 13). Latimer sentence highly contentious. Star-Phoenix, p. 76.
- Eisler, D. (1995, July 21). This has been a case where justice only produces more victims. The Ottawa Citizen, p. 11.
- Gardner, D. (1998, November 28). Debating the way we die. The Ottawa Citizen, p. 27.
- McLaughlin, J. (1998, November 24). Latimer case calls for justice, mercy. Red Deer Advocate, p. 4.
- Perreaux, L. (1997, November 6). Latimer guilty in daughter’s death. The Edmonton Journal, p. 3
- Reade, B. (1995, July 21). Is life sentence ‘cruel and unusual’?. The Ottawa Citizen, p. 11
- Roach, K. W. (2001). Crime and punishment in the latimer case. Saskatchewan Law Review, 64(2), 469.
- Sneiderman, B. (1997). The latimer mercy-killing case: A rumination on crime and punishment. Health Law Journal, 5, 1.
- Taylor, S. (2001, January 28). Two sides to the mercy story. The Surrey Leader, p. 20
- The Canadian Press. (1997, November 4). Mom tells courts she rather see her daughter dead than ‘mutilated’. Calgary Herald, p. 3.