Canada

At least a decade behind bars

Latimer’s last chances for earlier release appear slim

Julian Beltrame January 29 2001
Canada

At least a decade behind bars

Latimer’s last chances for earlier release appear slim

Julian Beltrame January 29 2001

At least a decade behind bars

Canada

Latimer’s last chances for earlier release appear slim

After seven years of uncertainty, the reality hit Robert Latimer with the finality of a prison gate clanging shut. The Supreme Court of Canada, in a unanimous 7 to 0 decision, ruled last week he must serve at least 10 years in prison for killing his severely disabled daughter in 1993. The court not only turned down his appeal for a new (in this case a third) trial, but also firmly rejected his lawyer’s argument that the minimum sentence for second-degree murder—life imprisonment with no possibility of parole for at 10 years—constituted “cruel and unusual punishment” in Latimer’s extraordinary circumstances. Speaking to reporters outside his Wilkie, Sask., farmhouse, an unrepentant Latimer struggled with emotions that ranged from anger to bewilderment. “I’m going to jail,” he said glumly. Then, with his wife, Laura, he got in his station wagon and drove to Saskatoon to surrender to police.

But the issues surrounding the Latimer case are far from resolved. While the Supreme Courts unambiguous ruling closed one door to his quest for legal

sanction for what he believes to have been an act of compassion, it also pointed to others. Acknowledging Latimer’s anguish as he watched the suffering of his 12-year-old daughter, Tracy, before deciding to end her life, the court took the unusual step of offering two avenues for relief. Latimer could ask the federal cabinet for a con-

ditional pardon under the rarely used royal prerogative of mercy. Or Parliament, if it chooses, could address the controversial issue of mandatory minimum sentences. Latimer “faced challenges of the sort most Canadians can only imagine,” said the clearly sympathetic justices.

Latimer’s lawyer, Mark Brayford, said he would seek a pardon for his client. But Latimer’s best hope, although slim,

may be in a change of the law. Bruce Ryder, a professor at Osgoode Hall law school in Toronto, noted that clemency is rarely offered, and then only in cases involving a serious miscarriage of justice. The Supreme Court all but precluded that option, he added, by ruling that Latimer’s sentence “is not grossly disproportionate.” To Ryder, the real villain is mandatory sentences, which have the effect of treating Latimer the same as a person who held up a gas station and killed the attendant. “The law,” he said, “must be changed to allow for compassionate homicide.”

I By all accounts, Latimer had been a I loving father to Tracy, a quadriplegic I who appeared to be in constant pain from a severe form of cerebral palsy. In October, 1993, after learning Tracy needed an operation to cut off the top of her right leg bone, Latimer ended her life by placing her in his Chevy pickup and filling it with carbon monoxide fumes. “This was a murder of love, not hate, for selfless reasons, not selfish,” observed Alan Borovoy of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, who considers Latimer’s sentence disproportionate to his deed.

But a group of advocates for the disabled who gathered at the Supreme Court were visibly relieved by the ruling. And the government offered Latimer little hope of early release. A spokeswoman for Justice Minister Anne McLellan said there were no plans to create a third category of murder—beyond firstand second-degree—for so-called compassionate homicides. As for conditional pardons, cabinets have granted only 16 of them in the past 20 years—out of 653 applications. Before turning himself in, Latimer seemed resigned to spending at least 10 years behind bars. “The politicians,” he said, “won’t touch this with a 10-foot pole.” Asked if he would do it again, he simply replied: “Yes.”

Julian Beltrame in Ottawa

Should Latimer be granted earlier parole? To have your say and for Web links: