Robert Latimer's Crusade for Vindication
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. From the outset, the justice system has turned a blind eye to the absence of choices before him - that, at least, is how the man himself sees it - and only a new trial can expose the entire, disgraceful truth.
Robert Latimer might have gone to prison a taciturn stoic, heartbroken yet unapologetic following his decision in October 1993 to end the life of his 12-year-old daughter Tracy, who was stricken by cerebral palsy. But if the letters recently posted on his website are any barometer, the 54-year-old from Wilkie, Sask., 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. One note sent last August to Justice Minister Rob Nicholson accuses the country's highest court of dishonesty. Another sent in March 2005 accuses the court of "shirking its responsibilty to understand the arguments before it."
The subtext, however, is always the same: 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 last week, 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. But even those close to him seemed confused. Asked why her husband wasn't returning to the farm, Laura Latimer told a reporter: "He does have his reasons, but you'll have to ask him." (At press time, Latimer was mulling numerous interview requests but hadn't accepted any.) Ivan Bjornholt, a friend and supporter who manages Latimer's website, has asked Latimer why he doesn't just go home. "I guess he just feels he's been wronged," says Bjornholt. "He just wants to pursue his own case."
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 wrenching 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 plight back on the front burner, advocates for the DISABLED fear a renewed push to relax the laws surrounding so-called mercy killings. "It concerns us a lot," says Michael Bach, executive vice-president of the Canadian Association for Community Living. "This has gone beyond Robert Latimer and Tracy Latimer. He's trying to tap a pretty clearly expressed majority public opinion that he was in some way justified in what he did."
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 has believed he was practising mercy, and more importantly, acting out of necessity. In court, he maintained that death was the only means of relief for a child unable to enjoy the world around her and facing a life of unbearable pain. Twisted by her condition into physical contortions, unable to eat without a tube inserted into her esophagus, unable to absorb most painkillers, she had become a heart-wrenching spectacle. She was scheduled at the time for a bone-removal operation to relieve the agony of a permanently dislocated hip. Yet, as Latimer pointed out, at least one doctor predicted Tracy would continue to suffer as long as she lived. After 12 agonizing years, he decided that she had lived enough.
He never quite persuaded a jury to trust his judgment on that, though. Two trials - one overturned due to jury-tampering by the prosecution - resulted in convictions for second-degree murder, as prosecutors successfully argued that the Latimers did have options, in the form of better pain management or institutional care. Trouble was, neither the jurors nor most other Canadians seemed keen to lump him in with common killers. Disturbed by the idea that his conviction required a minimum 10 years in prison, 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.
Alas for Latimer, the higher courts were less interested in the defendant's intentions than in the apparent 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. On Jan. 18, 2001, after the decision came down, Latimer offered a few bitter words to the media, climbed behind the wheel of his blue station wagon, and drove himself to prison in Saskatoon. For his supporters, it was a devastating blow. "I don't think anybody really understands what he went through," Audrey Woodrow, a neighbour in Wilkie and long-time friend of the Latimers, now says. "He always told us that he thought in his heart that he was doing the right thing, and no one who wasn't there is in a position to say otherwise. I know I can't." For disabled activists, however, the decision was manna, reining in what they saw as an increasingly permissive attitude toward mercy killing. "There were tears of happiness," recalls Bach. "One of the central institutions of our society - the one that bestows equality - saw this for what it was, and there was this 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. Bjornholt maintains his friend is not going to Ottawa to engage in a public crusade ("He's really not the lecturer type"), and the Web manager is discomfited on Latimer's behalf by the congratulatory emails flowing from people in the euthanasia movement. "He simply thought his case was unique and he's really not interested in campaigning for euthanasia or anything of that nature," says Bjornholt. However, another 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. That finding lies at the heart of his pleas to cabinet ministers and judges for a new trial - as well as the angry tone of his letters. Again and again, Latimer has complained that neither Saskatchewan prosecutors, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal, nor the Supreme Court has identified those alternatives, while rejecting what he saw as good explanations as to why none of the options he did know of would work. "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 the August 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 in official 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 at best. 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, and it seems unlikely that a minority government would want to take up such an emotionally charged issue.
So why is the disabled lobby so up in arms? 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. In poll after poll since then, notes Bach, fully 70 per cent Canadians have consistently told pollsters that they sympathize with him, while a slight majority express favour for some legalization of euthanasia, mercy killing or assisted suicide. That climate of permissiveness is frightening for disabled people, says Bach, because they worry it would leave them at the mercy of caregivers who think they know best. And Latimer, as uncharismatic as he might seem, is the one figure with the ability to create social sanction for the concept of mercy killing, which they see as a step toward separating it from the legal status of common murder.
Not that he comes across as a reasoned debater. The rage that tinges his letters - "fraudulent fabrications" appears in almost all those sent in the last four years - is as likely to instill fear as sympathy. One sent in April 2004 to then prime minister Paul Martin refers to police and prosecutors as "predators," then goes on to compare the state's actions against him to those of German Nazis like Adolf Eichmann, citing the views of two university professors. But so far his fury has been counterbalanced by an air of stolid sincerity that comes across on TV, says Jim Derksen, a spokesman for the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. "There is a kind of strange identification with his taciturn farmer stoicism. Many of our parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts have been farmers. I think we see that sort of mythic figure in the visage of this man." The fond hope of disabled advocates, Derksen adds, is that the image will crack when Canadians get a taste of Latimer's more extreme rhetoric. "In past interviews, he's been very vehement in his condemnation of those who would presume to take him to court and hold him accountable."
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. As such it provides convenient escape for political leaders who wish to avoid the topic altogether. Why, they might ask, should Latimer's case be grounds for a debate on mercy killing when, by the high court's own judgment, the man's actions fail to meet the only acceptable definition of the term?
None of this is to say that Latimer's presence in Ottawa must be wholly counterproductive. The spectre of his reappearance has already prompted community-living advocates to mobilize support for a broad-based inquiry - perhaps even a royal commission - on the quality of life of disabled people. With 1.3 million Canadians living with pain-related disabilities, and with science devising ever more creative ways to relieve debilitating pain, there is a growing sense that families, physicians and legal professionals alike could be better equipped when situations like Tracy Latimer's arise. The idea, says Bach, would be to steer discussion away from mercy killing, which a Senate committee in the 1990s concluded should remain a criminal offence. Instead, the inquiry would focus on issues like the vulnerability of the disabled to abuse, support for families with loved ones disabled by pain, and the options for treatment in cases of extreme disability.
Whether Latimer would participate in such a project is another question. Last week, Laura Latimer said she expects her husband to return to the farm once his day parole is finished - three years, if all goes well. In the interim, she and the couple's two kids will make occasional visits to Ottawa. A family friend in Saskatchewan raised doubts as to whether Latimer will be inclined toward returning to the farm. "He's in his mid-50s now, which is when farming starts to get difficult," said the friend, who did not wish to be named. "And all their equipment will be out of date. You can't go buy new equipment all at once, especially if you're just coming out of prison." Latimer took a course in prison that qualifies him as an apprentice electrician, the friend points out; maybe he could save himself a lot of frustration by taking a job wiring houses. Sage advice, given the sad memories that await him on that farm in Wilkie. And judging from his own words, one more round of frustration and heartbreak might be more than Robert Latimer can take.
Maclean's March 17, 2008