In 1993, 12-year-old Tracy Latimer was murdered by her father on their farm in Saskatchewan, western Canada. Tracy had a severe case of cerebral palsy and suffered acute pain because of a chronic displaced hip. She could not walk or feed herself. She could not speak. But she could communicate with persons close to her. There is a photograph in MacLeans magazine of her hugging her little sister, Lindsay.
On a Sunday morning, her father, Robert Latimer, stayed home with Tracy while the rest of the family went to church. As reported by the Council of Canadians With Disabilities, which has been following the case nearly day by day:
“He put her in the front seat of his truck beside the steering wheel. He attached a hose to the exhaust pipe and put the other end through a narrow opening in the cab’s rear window. He then started the engine at 11:30 a.m. In seconds the truck filled with lethal fumes.
“Latimer told police, ‘I was timing all this stuff. I was sitting there watching through the back window.’ . . . Prior to the autopsy, Latimer said that Tracy died in her sleep. When the autopsy proved that Tracy died of carbon monoxide poisoning, Latimer confessed to gassing her in his truck and then putting her to bed.”
During his trial, the Crown (the prosecution) entered into evidence a video of an interview with Latimer carried by the Canadian Broadcasting Company: “I honestly don’t believe there was any crime committed.”
On the other hand, Darcy Henton of the Toronto Star‘s Western Canada Bureau wrote that after Tracy was disposed of, her father “called police to report that his daughter had died in her sleep. It was a lie. He also burned a hose that piped the exhaust into the cab of his truck. In legal circles, they call that evidence of a guilty mind.”
Was Tracy ready for killing? Was her father engaged in a merciful murder? Well, her condition had not been terminal. Yet her father explained that since he foresaw only more suffering for her, he had acted out of compassion and love for his child. He wanted to release her from her pain.
But doctors had planned surgery they believed would make her more comfortable. And there is a question about the degree and skill with which pain management had been part of her treatment. Furthermore, Pat Danforth of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities says, “Tracy’s pain wasn’t continuous. It was intermittent and situational.”
Did Tracy want to die? Was she asked by her father whether she wanted to be killed, compassionately? Anthony DePalma reported in The New York Times that “while Mr. Latimer and his wife, Laura, testified about their daughter’s agony and her apparent loss of interest in life, they did not say she had asked them to kill her.”
When Latimer was convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years to life—with no hope of parole until he had served 10 years—there was an outpouring of support for him among many Canadians claiming the sentence was too harsh.
Not surprisingly, among those lobbying for a much more merciful sentence for this mercy killer was the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. After all, the American Civil Liberties Union has been an insistent supporter of legalizing assisted suicide—ignoring its effects on the severely disabled for whom that fatal decision would be made by others.
Alan Borovoy, counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, pleaded with Canada’s federal justice minister to revoke Robert Latimer’s prison sentence: “Do not let this family endure another moment of needless suffering. Society must do the right thing. The legal arguments are really beside the point.”
Borovoy and his association had nothing to say about the needless death of Tracy Latimer.
A letter to Latimer himself from a sensitive member of the public said: “We should euthanize damaged people. You should not be punished at all.”
Speaking for Tracy, in spirit, was Katherine Frazee—a disability rights activist who is unable to walk or use her arms. She told National Public Radio: “Tracy’s murder was cruel and unusual punishment for having a disability.”
And Jim Dirksen, another disability rights advocate, added: “To exempt people who kill us from the consequences of their murders—based on the assertion of compassion as motivation—is to put every disabled person at great risk.”
So far, those sympathizing with Robert Latimer have prevailed. Justice Ted Noble, who presided over Latimer’s trial, granted Latimer what in Canada is called a constitutional exemption, thereby reducing his sentence to two years. He will be in prison for only a few months. The rest of the sentence will be served on parole on his farm in Saskatchewan—where Tracy was murdered.
Justice Noble explained that Latimer’s motivation for the killing was love and compassion: “the need—at least in his mind—that she should not suffer any more pain.”
This is the first time a constitutional exemption has been granted in Canada on a conviction of murder.
The following article appeared in the Vancouver Sun:
“My name is Teague. I am 11 years old and have really severe cerebral palsy. The Latimer case in Saskatchewan caused me a great deal of unhappiness and worry… I feel very strongly that all children are valuable and deserve to live full and complete lives…
“I can’t walk or feed myself. But I am not ‘suffering from cerebral palsy.’ I use a wheelchair, but I am not ‘confined to a wheelchair.’ I have pain, but I do not need to be ‘put out of my misery.’…
“Life is a precious gift. It belongs to the person to whom it was given. Not to her parents, nor to the state. Tracy’s life was hers to make of it what she could.”
Robert Latimer is out on bail as he appeals his conviction and his greatly diminished sentence. And the Crown is appealing the reduction of his sentence. Tracy Latimer has no appeal left.