Exemption Quashed

(23 November 1998) — Relief spread over the community of persons with disabilities when it was learned that the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal had set aside the constitutional exemption given to Robert Latimer last year by Justice Ted Noble. The exemption would have allowed Latimer to avoid the mandatory penalty for second degree murder, established by the Criminal Code. For those convicted of second degree murder, parole is not an option until ten years have been served in penitentiary. With the constitutional exemption, Latimer would have served less than two years jail time.

CCD, along with a number of other community organizations, intervened jointly in these most recent appeals to ensure that the court was aware of the case's impact on citizens with disabilities.

The decision handed down by the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal is important for a number of reasons:

Equality and Other Constitutional Rights Upheld

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms establishes that people with disabilities enjoy equal protection before and under the law. The constitutional exemption granted Robert Latimer threatened that protection. The decision handed down by the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal restores the community's faith in constitutional protections.

A central argument in this case was Mr. Latimer's contention that a parent has a right to kill a disabled child if the parent decides the child's quality of life no longer warrants continuation of that life. This argument offended Section 7 (Life and Security of the Person) and Section 15(1) (Equality Rights). The Appeal Court's decision upheld Tracy's, and all people with disabilities', constitutional rights.

Upheld the Law's Deterrent Function

Today's decision reinforces the deterrent function of the law.

The importance of the deterrent function of the law cannot be overemphasized. This has been made quite clear by Grant Mitchell, speaking at vigils for Tracy Latimer. "As a parent of a disabled teenager, I need to know that my daughter, already made vulnerable by nature, will not be made even more vulnerable by our laws. The Charter says we all have equal protection of the law, how else to measure that "equal protection" than by the criminal liability of those who commit the crimes—the offense they are found guilty of and the sentence they receive. That is what deters," stated Mitchell.

Prof. Dick Sobsey states, "There is currently strong evidence that children with disabilities are much more frequently victims of crime than other children. For example, they have been shown to be more than twice as likely to be physically abused and almost twice as likely to be sexually abused. These children are obviously some of Canada's most vulnerable citizens."

In the years ensuing since Tracy's murder, the community of persons with disabilities has witnessed more killings: Ryan Wilkieson, Katie Lynn Baker, Charles Blais, Andrea Halpin. The murder of Tracy Latimer was not an isolated incident. To prevent more murders from happening it is essential that the law's deterrent function be maintained.

Altering Public Stereotypes and Misconceptions

The feature that distinguishes this case from other murder cases is the fact that Tracy had a disability. The victim's disability has caused the public to view Robert Latimer differently than other murderers. "[W]e feel our own vulnerability heightened as our neighbors and colleagues suggest that there was something noble and humane in what Robert Latimer did to his daughter," stated Eric Norman, Chairperson CCD. No one suggested that Susan Smith's drowning of her two young sons was anything but a heinous crime. The sympathetic reaction seems to be reserved for the killers of children with disabilities.

On the matter of public misconceptions, Catherine Frazee, a member of CCD's Human Rights Committee commented, "The [Latimer] case brought into focus clearly the very wide gap between how we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived by the nondisabled majority. We are as content with our lives as is the nondisabled population. However, the nondisabled majority's perceptions about disablement are very distorted, seeing it as something greatly diminishing the quality of life. In cases like Latimer, we see where those stereotypes taken to the extreme can so distort people's understanding that many Canadians believe there was nothing wrong with what Latimer did."

"The only explanation for that view is that people feel confident Tracy's life has far less value than a nondisabled life," continued Frazee.

The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal's decision demonstrates to the public that our lives have the same value as the lives of people without disabilities.

Overcoming Feelings of Rejection

This case has generated much personal pain and anguish for people with disabilities, particularly for those who live in circumstances similar to those of Tracy Latimer. "Canadians with disabilities in response to this case came together with feelings of fear, vulnerability, pain and anger. People with disabilities came together to affirm our humanity, our passion for life and our solidarity," stated Eric Norman. The decision today helps to restore the community's faith that Canada is seeking to be a society for all.

While there is relief that the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal handed down an appropriate decision, sadness remains because we remember Tracy. As Judith Snow stated, "Just think, Tracy would have been celebrating her 18th birthday [in October]. What about some funky clothes—say some leggings, mini-kilt, some make-up, a styling' purple streak in her hair to bring out her laughing eyes. How about a henna tattoo, and an accessible taxi to the school dance accompanied by some school chums to make sure that all goes well. Afterwards, some pizza and loud music in the rec room to round out a perfect birthday. It happens for girls like Tracy everywhere. It will never happen for Tracy."