Exemption Is Wrong: Court Decision Threatens Equality Rights of Citizens with Disabilities

(1 December 1997) — People with disabilities are expressing shock and anger over the constitutional exemption the Saskatchewan court granted Robert Latimer. Rather than serving the mandatory sentence for second degree murder (10 years without parole), Latimer will serve less than two years.

"The Council of Canadians with Disabilities views with alarm the decision to reduce the sentence for Robert Latimer from the mandatory 10 years," states Eric Norman, CCD Chairperson. "The victim's disability did not confer upon her father the right to end her life, nor should it now confer upon the court the right to reduce the mandatory sentence called for by the conviction."

"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. It is also lending support to the notion that the killing of a person with a disability is different from the killing of any other person," stated Mr. Hugh Scher Chairperson CCD Human Rights Committee.

"The disability of the person murdered can not be allowed to become a factor in how we judge the actions of the murderer. This sentence must be appealed," said Pat Danforth CCD Human Rights Committe Member.

The Board of Directors of People First of Canada, the official voice of Canadians who have been labeled mentally handicapped, has released a statement on the Latimer case. "We believe that in Tracy's memory it is our duty to advocate for equal justice for Tracy. Mr. Latimer was convicted of second degree murder after he admitted he killed his daughter. The fact that Tracy had a disability should not diminish her citizenship," states People First.

Robert Latimer's reduced sentence distresses people with disabilities on several levels:

EQUALITY RIGHTS THREATENED—The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms establishes that people with disabilities enjoy equal benefit and protection before and under the law. The verdict handed down in the Saskatchewan court today calls into the question the veracity of this protection.

PUBLIC PERCEPTIONS—The feature that most significantly distinguishes this case from other murder cases is the fact that the victim had a disability. To reduce the mandatory sentence for second degree murder because the victim was disabled communicates to other Canadians the misperception that our lives are less valuable than nondisabled lives. Today's verdict goes a long way to undermining the work that has been done to alter public opinion and attitudes about disability.

LESSENING OF THE LAW'S DETERRENT FUNCTION—Upon two occasions, CCD representatives have been told by parents that they would kill their disabled children, if it were not for legal prohibitions. Latimer's constitutional exemption may lessen the deterrent force of the law. Dick Sobsey of the University of Alberta who has spent 11 years studying violence against persons with disabilities concurs with this assessment and believes that, "any lesser penalty will put thousands of people with disabilities in greater danger of violence and death."

PSYCHOLOGICAL ANGUISH AND FEELINGS OF REJECTION—The Latimer case has caused a greater deal of personal pain for people with disabilities, particularly individuals who find themselves in situations similar to that of Tracy Latimer.

An Agenda for Action

The sentencing of Robert Latimer is not the end of the road for this case. There are actions that consumers and those who wish to support our fundamental human rights can take to work for justice for Tracy Latimer.

Write to the Saskatchewan Minister of Justice Hon. John Nilson and express your views on the sentencing in this case. Call upon the Minister of Justice to appeal Robert Latimer's sentence.

Contact your Member of Parliament and the Minister of Justice to inform them that you are opposed to any legislative move to introduce an amendment to the Criminal Code to include the concept of "compassionate" homicide.

Contact CBC and other media outlets to call for media coverage which puts the perspective of people with disabilities on fundamental human rights issues at center stage. On Tuesday, we saw CBC give Robert Latimer almost a half hour of air time to present his version of Tracy's life and death. The viewing public did not have the opportunity to hear from people with disabilities who have experienced medical interventions similar to Tracy's and gone on to lead lives which they enjoy and treasure. Partially as a result of their ignorance on critical facts about life with a disability, members of the public provide answers like the following to a recent Tele-Quebec/Sondagem poll:

1. You may have heard of Robert Latimer, who killed his handicapped daughter to relieve her of her suffering. Personally, are you in favor or against such an act?

For: 49.3%. Against: 28.4%. No Reply: 22.3%

2. Would you be in favor of the introduction of the notion of "murder by compassion" in the Criminal Code, in order to justify lesser sentences in cases such as that of Robert Latimer?

Yes: 71.3. No: 19.1%. No Reply: 9.5%.

Some members of the community of persons with disabilities liken the impact of Robert Latimer's comments about Tracy's life and disability and the reduced sentence in the case to the propagation of hate. The affects are: a depersonalization of those targeted, a poisoning of the social environment, a heightened likelihood of violence against those targeted.

CCD Human Rights Committee Available for Comment on Latimer's Sentence

Hugh Scher, 416-816-6115
Catherine Frazee, 416-924-5502
Pat Danforth—306-787-2530
Dr. Gregor Wolbring— 403-220-5448 (w) 403-686-6179 (h)
Jim Derksen—204-947-0303
Lucie Lemieux-Brassard—514-943-3995
Paula Keirstead—204-947-0194
Eric Norman— 709-256-8630
Laurie Beachell—204-947-0303
Mel Graham—204-947-0303