It was, by all accounts, an emotionally wrenching moment in what has been a relentlessly painful saga. As Robert Latimer waited last week for the outcome of his appeal against his second-degree murder conviction in the death of his 12-year-old daughter Tracy, a few close friends gathered to offer the family support. When the phone rang, Latimer answered in the kitchen while the others sat anxiously in the living-room. With the news that the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal had unanimously upheld his conviction, Latimer’s wife, Laura, broke into tears. But Latimer never wavered, maintaining the stoic appearance that has become his trademark throughout the case.
For Latimer, 42, the appeal court’s decision temporarily ended eight months of at least partial freedom. After his conviction last November, Latimer was granted bail on condition he remain on the family grain farm near Wilkie, Sask., 150 km west of Saskatoon, pending the outcome of his appeal. Hours after learning that he had lost, Latimer said goodbye to his wife and three children, and turned himself into the local detachment of the RCMP to begin serving his sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole for 10 years. “I thought they could do better,” Latimer said tersely. But only a day later, Latimer was released from the RCMP lockup in North Battleford when the court extended his bail
conditions pending the outcome of an application for an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.
In what has been a roller coaster of emotions, the scene at the Latimer home ranged from stunned disbelief at losing the appeal to relief at his return home the next day.
Ironically, those who shared the moments with Latimer drew strength from his steadfast calm, especially when they learned that the appeal had been lost. “It was very sad,” said neighbor Trina Woodrow, 23, who has worked on the Latimer farm for the past five years. “Laura started crying and he tried to comfort her and say it would be all right. Bob was very strong. If he wasn’t, we all would have broken down.” By week’s end, Latimer’s lawyer, Mark Brayford of Saskatoon, had formally filed papers seeking leave to appeal to the Supreme Court.
But in the wake of the unanimous 3-to-0 Saskatchewan appeal court decision upholding Latimer’s conviction, there seemed little reason to believe that judicial opinion would change. For one thing, Latimer does not deny that he took the life of his daughter, who suffered from cerebral palsy and had been severely disabled since birth. Indeed, he gave
the police a detailed statement describing how on the morning of Sunday, Oct. 24,1993, when the rest of the family was at church, he put Tracy in his truck and rigged a system that vented carbon monoxide fumes into the cab. After putting her in bed and claiming she died in her sleep, Latimer later confessed when an autopsy showed that Tracy had died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
The appeal judges rejected the five grounds cited by Brayford. Those included the argument that the trial judge erred by not telling the jury that “necessity” was a defence for Latimer, who felt compelled to act because of his daughter’s pain. The court noted that necessity is a defence only when a person acts in self-defence. “The trial judge was correct in finding that there was no factual foundation for this defence,” Justice Calvin Tallis wrote in a 49-page decision. “In this case the appellant’s life was not in peril.” The court also left no latitude for a deliberate decision by anyone to take someone else’s life, even someone as severely disabled and in pain as Tracy Latimer. “It does not advance the interest of the state or society to treat such a child as a person of lesser status or dignity than others,” it said.
Disabled rights groups hailed the decision. Mel Graham, spokesman for the Winnipegbased Council of Canadians with Disabilities, said the Latimer case has made disabled people aware of how fragile their rights can be. “The important thing for us is that the laws that are there to protect all of us are there for Tracy Latimer as well,” Graham said.
The appeal court did leave a glimmer of hope for Latimer. While he agreed in his 59page opinion with the decision to uphold the seconddegree murder conviction, Chief Justice Edward Bayda found Latimer’s minimum 10year sentence to be cruel and unusual punishment. ‘While the killing was a purposeful one, it had its genesis in altruism and was motivated by love, mercy and compassion or a combination of those virtues, generally considered by people to be life-enhancing and affirmative,” Bayda wrote. Some legal scholars found Bayda’s decision to support the conviction, but dissent on the sentence, to be unusual.
Whether Bayda’s dissenting voice on the sentence will give Latimer automatic leave to appeal to the Supreme Court remained unclear. Still, most experts believe the Latimer case is a matter destined for the top court—and that the issues involved will eventually have to be dealt with by Parliament. At issue are current mandatory minimum sentences for murder, regardless of the circumstances or motives for the crime. Many believe that, ultimately, the case will prompt politicians to give the courts more latitude in sentencing people convicted of murder.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.