The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

(1 December 1998) — The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal handed down a unanimous decision in the Latimer case last week. While the Court came down on the side of disability rights, the reaction of media commentators was not as positive. This edition of the Latimer Watch contains a sampling of the coverage following last Monday's decision. Commentaries have been divided into the good: those written from an equality rights perspective, the bad: those which advocated an ableist point of view and the ugly: those which presented distorted interpretations as fact. For example, Arthur Schafer in his comments seems to suggest that judges have the option to decide cases according to the dictates of public opinion rather than the law.

The Good

"The law is clear. You don't get to kill your child, no matter how tender-hearted your motives, no matter how difficult their life....The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal has closed the door on that unhealthy precedent [the Constitutional exemption handed down to Latimer]. The Supreme Court should keep it shut." (The Edmonton Journal, as quoted in The Globe and Mail, 27 November 1998.)

"Disabled organizations are perfectly right that the law must apply equally, with no special exemption for those who kill disabled people. The law should not, however, forbid judges to consider the facts when they sentence a murderer. Parliament should not attempt to write a law on mercy-killing, which would be the special exemption the disabled legitimately fear. Parliament should soften the rigidity of minimum-sentence provisions for all murderers and allow courts to consider the facts. (Winnipeg Free Press, 24 November 1998)

"...Where the victims are alive, or have appealing people to plead their case, we are ready to cry vengeance, and hang the rights of the accused. But where the victim has no voice, while her killer wears a mask of kindness—where the one is at best a memory while the other is the breathing presence of sorrowful humanity—there we find for the one who shows up. There were no reporters to ask Tracy's opinion of the sentence, or to comment on her stoic resolve. Of her, we have only a body, and a name, and the record of her brief life.

That is her victory, the third in this case: The vindication of life. Life unqualified, life without reservation, the life that is our gift, our right and our duty, the universal fact of being before which all differences fail. Each one of us is in every respect the equal of every other; no one may presume to judge the value of another's life. This would hardly need saying, did we not live in a culture that, more and more, has come to worship death.

Who are our heroes, the moral templates of our age? They are those who, one way or another, chose death: Robert Latimer, Sue Rodriguez, Nancy Morrison. The law condemns the taking of human life, and all have challenged the law, with varying degrees of success. They aren't bad people, in any conventional sense. They apparently acted from the highest motives. Should we not have made an exception in each case? And as the exceptions mount, we are compiling an ever lengthening list of the people it is permissible to kill." (National Post, 25 November 1998.)

The Bad

Headline: "Two Killers, Two Victims—should justice be automatic? Latimer killed his daughter Tracy to end her pain. Starr killed Jeff Giles in a robbery. They got roughly the same sentences. Is that fair?

Nothing seems to stir public debate like a jail sentence that seems out of sync with reality. The latest controversy is set off by yesterday's Saskatchewan Court of Appeal's decision overturning the two-year sentence for Robert Latimer's second-degree murder conviction, and replacing it with life in prison with no chance of parole for 10 years.

Latimer, a farmer with no prior criminal record, says he killed his severely disabled daughter Tracy in 1993 as an act of mercy. But second-degree murder carriers an automatic sentence of life in prison; only parole eligibility is left to a judge's discretion.

That is the same sentence received by Jason Starr, a career criminal and street gang member. Starr shot grocery store worker Jeff Giles in the face during a Winnipeg robbery 11 months ago and was sentenced to life, with no parole for 12 years in prison." (Winnipeg Free Press, 24 November 1998.)

"The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia has refused to allow Crown prosecutors to proceed to commit Dr. Nancy Morrison to trial for death of Paul Mills, a terminally ill cancer patient 'suffering from the worst death that the nurse on duty had ever seen.'...

Robert Latimer has been sentenced to a minimum of 10 years in prison by the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal for killing his severely disabled daughter, whose life with cerebral palsy he believed was too agonizing to continue....What is the difference between an agonizing death and an agonizing life? Ten years in prison, apparently. God help me if I ever feel the necessity to make such a decision on behalf of someone else, but please, kill me quick if I am destined for either." (Debbie McKeil, in The Globe and Mail's Letters to the Editor section, 25 November 1998.)

"For years, most of us have been lamenting the way the law has become increasingly concerned with the rights of the criminal rather than the victim. In the Latimer case, an act, albeit criminal, was done, prompted solely by desperate feelings of love and concern for another. But in this case, the concern of the law with looking after the perpetrator's interests is strangely absent. The lack of legislation that permits such a situation to come about can only be put to right by the initiative of the federal government....(Alex Taylor, in The Globe and Mail, Letters to the Editor section, 25 November 1998.)

The Ugly

"University of Manitoba ethics professor, Arthur Schafer said the decision was 'lacking in wisdom' and added the court chose to ignore the opinion of the majority of Canadians who think a life sentence for the mercy killing of someone who is in pain is inappropriate.

'This shows that Canadian law is rigid and inflexible and capable of producing great injustices,' he said after hearing about the court's decision.

'This decision brings Canadian law into disrepute. It's unconscionable to send a loving father to jail for life for acting to release her from pain.'"(The Globe and Mail, 24 November 1998.)