Tracy Latimer, the Victim; Robert Latimer, the Murderer

Robert Latimer served seven years in prison for killing his disabled daughter. Now the Saskatchewan farmer is determined to clear his name, and to prove he did nothing wrong. The 54-year-old from Wilkie, Saskatchewan, is emerging from jail a man transformed -and not the way corrections officials generally like to see. Missives penned by Latimer over the last four years to everyone from cabinet ministers to the Supreme Court itself seethe with language belying his popular image as a stolid farmer befuddled by the tempest around him.

The venom practically drips from the pages. Prosecutors have employed "slander, trickery and deceit" against him. The courts have swallowed "fabricated" evidence "fraudulently designed" by police and the Crown to secure a conviction. Critics who worry that mercy killings leave the definition of mercy in the eye of the killer are "parasites" who "regurgitate" false information purveyed by legal authorities bent on winning a landmark case.

Latimer does not see his case as closed, and the bitterness he feels is not the sort to be mollified by early release from prison. And recently, with the eyes of the country once again glued to his case, he made good on his rhetoric. No sooner had an appeal panel ruled that he should receive day parole, overturning a previous parole board decision in December, than Latimer confirmed an earlier stated wish to live in a halfway house in Ottawa -not in Saskatchewan near his wife and two kids. Being in the capital, his supporters explain, will enable him to make his case to federal politicians and justice officials in one last long shot at clearing his name.

Whatever the explanation, the man's sudden determination to wage polemics is no minor development. The 2001 Supreme Court decision affirming Latimer's life sentence with no chance of full parole for 10 years had given temporary closure to the frightening debate on how the legal system should treat people who think they're doing the right thing by ending the lives of those in pain. Now, with Latimer's story back on the front burner, advocates for the disabled fear a renewed push to relax the laws surrounding so-called mercy killings.

THAT THE LAW took eight years to put Latimer behind bars is a measure of the contradictory feelings he and his case unleash. From the day he loaded Tracy into the cab of his pickup, ran a length of tubing from the tailpipe to the cab and turned on the ignition, Latimer said he was practicing mercy, and more importantly, acting out of necessity.

He never quite persuaded a jury to trust his judgment on that, as ultimately he was convicted of second-degree murder. Prosecutors successfully argued that the Latimers did have options, in the form of better pain management or institutional care. Unfortunately, neither the jurors nor most other Canadians seemed keen to lump him in with common killers. The jury of his second trial asked for leniency in sentencing. The judge agreed, exempting him from the minimum and imposing a sentence of one year in jail and one served in the community.

The higher courts were less interested in the defendant's intentions than in the high-handedness of his actions. The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal set aside the exemption, reinstating the mandatory life sentence, and its decision was upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada. Subsequently, on Jan. 18, 2001, Latimer began his prison sentence.

For disabled activists, the decision was manna, reining in what they saw as an increasingly permissive attitude toward mercy killing. They were relieved to see that one of the central institutions of our society -the one that bestows equality- saw this for what it was, and there was a huge sense of relief.

The degree to which that now changes is up to Latimer, and there are conflicting signals about exactly what his "advocacy" will entail. One source close to Latimer, who sought anonymity because the person has not been authorized to speak, said the parolee is intent on refuting the Supreme Court's conclusion that there were alternative pain medications available to Tracy. Again and again, Latimer has complained that neither Saskatchewan prosecutors, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal, nor the Supreme Court has identified those alternatives. "The biggest reason why this court cannot give me an answer to my frequently asked question is that the claim of such a medication is a fraudulent fabrication of the Saskatchewan Justice Department prosecutors to bolster the charges against me," Latimer wrote in one letter. "Honest people would not continue to endorse bogus claims that generate such slander."

What kind of reception this kind of hyperbole will get on Parliament Hill is, to say the least, uncertain. While Latimer has received quiet moral support from individual MPs -especially those from Saskatchewan, the response to his letters to officials in Ottawa has thus far been cool. Four different federal justice ministers have rebuffed his entreaties over the years, issuing responses like: "I cannot speak for the Supreme Court by explaining the reasons for a decision it has rendered:" Staff of the Supreme Court itself wrote to him in July 2003, advising him, "There's nothing further the Court can do for you:"

As for the general debate about euthanasia, assisted suicide and mercy killing, political support has been tepid and individualistic. In May 2005, Bloc Québécois MP Francine Lalonde introduced a private member's bill to legalize assisted suicide but it died when an election was called the following winter.

SO WHY are persons with disabilities expressing concern about Latimer's release and stated intentions? The answer lies not in any fear that Latimer will get a new trial, but in his potential to act as a catalyst, mobilizing public sentiment that has been dormant since the Supreme Court sent him to prison back in 2001. Any climate of permissiveness is frightening for persons with disabilities because they worry it would leave them at the mercy of caregivers who think they know best.

For Latimer's critics, the best weapon will undoubtedly be the Supreme Court decision itself. In its 7-0 decision, the court rejected all of Latimer's grounds for appeal, saying his sentence was not, as he maintained, cruel and unusual punishment, and that Latimer's altruistic motivations were outweighed by the fact he was in a position of trust. What's more, they ruled out the notion that what he did was a merciful way out of a dire situation. "Tracy's situation was not an emergency," the judges added in one particularly devastating passage. "The appellant can be reasonably expected to have understood that reality." It was, in short, a starkly different impression of Latimer's actions than the one painted by his supporters.

In the 1990's a Senate Committee concluded that mercy killing should remain a punishable offence—and so it must. There is no one among us who should presume to judge the quality of another's life and fate. Tracy Latimer's life and death is the best example of this tenet as we know her father, Robert Latimer, judged his twelve year old daughter's life and found it wanting—and so he murdered her.

Murder is not mercy.

Let there be no more murders of people with disabilities.

Marie White, National Chairperson
Laurie Beachell, National Coordinator