Robert Latimer Murdered His Daughter

by Leslie MacLeod

(2 June 2000) — Mr. Robert Latimer will be back in the Supreme Court of Canada on June 14, 2000. He is appealing his 10 year mandatory sentence for the second degree murder of his 12 year old daughter Tracy. Many Canadians will be watching this appeal, none more anxiously than people who have disabilities.

On October 12, 1993, Robert Latimer decided to kill Tracy. While Mrs. Latimer and their three other children were at church, Mr. Latimer put Tracy in the cab of his truck and piped in exhaust fumes for 30 minutes. He confessed that he watched through the back window of the cab and timed his daughter's death. Then he put her body back in bed. Later that day, a report that Tracy had died suddenly in her sleep was called into the authorities. On November 4, police questioned Mr. Latimer and charged him with first degree murder. Later that day, he confessed to killing her and spent several days in jail.

During his trial, Mr. Latimer's defense to the charge of first degree murder was that he is a loving father who made the heart-breaking decision that Tracy was better off dead. Why did Mr. Latimer say that Tracy was better off dead? Because she had cerebral palsy and he wanted to end her suffering. This is the story that was carried in news media all over the country and which has caused endless painful debate for many Canadians. Let's look at some of the issues surrounding this case.

Tracy did have severe cerebral palsy. She also went to a developmental program at her school every day. She traveled on the same bus as the other children. Tracy liked many different things, including music, watching television, aquatics, animals, being outdoors, and being hugged. Her mother's own diary captures Tracy's spirit as cheerful, alert, and mischievous up until the day she died. By all accounts she was a happy child. Tracy's disability was not killing her, but her father did. Tracy's disability was part of who she was, but not the sum total of who she was.

However, almost every news report of this story has categorized Tracy as "a twelve year old girl who couldn't walk, talk or even feed herself". Why was she always described this way? First, it's part of what makes this story newsworthy. Second, Mr. Latimer and his defense lawyer emphasized Tracy's disabilities during the court proceedings and in their press interviews. Unfortunately, what was missing from the public discussion about Tracy's condition is that she could have continued to live a full life, just like other people who have severe disabilities.

It was reported that Tracy was in pain. This is true, but it was not unrelenting. And Tracy continued to go to school and enjoy her life in spite of it, as do many people who live with chronic pain. On October 12, Tracy's doctor recommended surgery to fix a chronic hip dislocation. Mr. Latimer says this was the turning point that made him decide to kill Tracy. Later on he described the recommended surgery as mutilation. How many of us will face hip replacement surgery before our lives are over? Should we be killed when the time comes instead of being healed?

Contrary to some reports, the Latimers did have help from various social services. A few months before her death, when Mrs. Latimer was seven months pregnant with their fourth child, Tracy was moved to a group home. The baby was born in August and Tracy moved back home in early October.

Tracy's medical condition was manageable with medication, surgery and therapy. However, Mr. Latimer is on record as having a clinical phobia of needles, injury and blood. He also distrusts doctors. So, whose misery did Mr. Latimer really want to end, Tracy's or his own?

News reports of this story generated an immense outpouring of sympathy for the Latimers. By April 1995, they were receiving 50 - 100 support letters a day. By 1996, Canadians had donated over $65,000 for his legal expenses. Petitions for a pardon circulated following his conviction.

Why were people so quick to believe that Tracy's life was an unrelenting torment? Why did they believe that killing her was somehow a noble and heart-breaking act? How did a murderer become a compassionate hero? No doubt Mr. Latimer's emotional defense reached you wherever you are, but some facts of the case probably remained out of your sight. And those facts led to two murder convictions. There is no doubt that Mr. Latimer committed a carefully premeditated act, which he then tried to cover up.

Tracy's life would likely have been very different from yours. But she deserved the same right to live her life that you have to live yours. No one has the right to judge the quality of another person's experience here on earth. Tracy was not an animal to be put down when she suffered. What she deserved was treatment, support, care and respect for the life that was hers.

During the trials, Mr. Latimer's lawyer introduced the new concept of "surrogate suicide". Of course, suicide means deciding to kill yourself. The lawyer argued that parents and guardians for those who are unable to speak for themselves should have the legal right to "commit suicide" for them. This is a clever way to say that parents and guardians should be legally allowed to murder the very people who must trust them with their lives.

How would you have reacted to this story if Mr. Latimer had murdered a healthy, able-bodied child? What if Tracy had been recovering from a devastating illness or injury? Disability must never become an acceptable reason to kill someone.

Disability organizations have intervened in two of Latimer's previous appeals and will be there again on June 14. We have watched with horror and fear as the Latimer case has unfolded in the courts and media. We will not accept a defense to murder based on the "I did it because I loved her and she was suffering" argument. And we will never accept a third category of murder for mercy killing or "compassionate homicide". We know there is nothing merciful or compassionate about murder.

Mrs. Latimer is on record as saying that they lost Tracy the day she was born with a disability, and that the day she was born was much sadder than the day she died. We believe that the day Tracy died was a tragedy for her and everyone in this country who is vulnerable to the actions of others. Tracy could have continued to be cared for by others rather than murdered by her father.

If you still agree with Mr. Latimer's defense, ask yourself, who should have the power to decide who lives and who dies? And ask, who should have the right to kill you when the time comes?