CANADA

The mercy-killing debate

Robert Latimer’s murder appeal sparks a protest by handicap groups

TOM FENNELL January 16 1995
CANADA

The mercy-killing debate

Robert Latimer’s murder appeal sparks a protest by handicap groups

TOM FENNELL January 16 1995

The mercy-killing debate

Robert Latimer’s murder appeal sparks a protest by handicap groups

TOM FENNELL

The hundreds of letters overflowing three cardboard boxes in his living room give Robert Latimer hope. Last November, Latimer, who operates a 1,200-acre grain farm 170 km west of Saskatoon, was sentenced to a minimum of 10 years in jail after being convicted of second-degree murder for killing his severely disabled 12year-old daughter, Tracy. Since then, Latimer, 41, has been free on bail, and restricted to his farm by a court order until his appeal is heard on Feb. 13 in Regina. He spends his days caring for his children, repairing farm equipment and reading the constant flow of letters sent by Canadians who believe that his sentence was too harsh. And as his appeal nears, petitions asking the federal cabinet to exercise its rarely used authority to pardon Latimer are also beginning to circulate. “It is helping us a lot,” Latimer told Maclean’s last week. “We’re very grateful.”

Latimer has never denied killing his daughter, who suffered both mentally and physically from cerebral palsy. On Oct. 24, 1993, while his wife, Laura, and his other three children, aged 1 to 11, attended a Sunday morning church service,

Latimer put Tracy in the cab of a pickup truck and left the motor running. Using a hose, he filled the cab with carbon monoxide fumes. By doing so, Latimer told police at the time of his arrest, he had finally ended his daughter’s suffering. He also unwittingly triggered an emotional debate between Canadians who believe that no one has the right to take another person’s life and those who believe he acted out of compassion. So far, supporters have donated more than $60,000 to cover his legal bills. At the same time, Ottawa real estate lawyer Paul Dioguardi has circulated a clemency petition signed by almost 2,000 Ontario and Quebec residents since early December. “The severity of the sentence struck me,” says Dioguardi. “The justice system has gone off the rails.”

Dioguardi is not alone. A number of other petitions are also being prepared, including one signed by 4,000 people in Western Canada. Jamie and Janet Bassett, of Christopher Lake, Sask., 45 km north of Prince Albert, say they also launched their petition drive because they believed Latimer’s punishment did not fit his crime. Like Dioguardi, the Bassetts are hoping to convince the federal cabinet to pardon Latimer, under what is known as a “Royal prerogative” contained in the Canadian Criminal Code. Under the provisions, a person convicted of murder may ask the cabinet for a full pardon or a reduced sentence.

But groups that represent handicapped Canadians say Latimer deserves no mercy. Karin Melberg-Schwier, president of the Saskatoon-based Saskatchewan Association for Community Living, says that if Latimer’s conviction is overturned or his sentence reduced, it could encourage others to take similar action against the handicapped. And Theresa Ducharme, president of the Winnipeg-based People in Equal Participation Inc., says her group has applied for intervenor status at Latimer’s appeal. “The Criminal Code is there to protect the lives of all people,” says Ducharme, a quadriplegic who is on permanent life support: “When it comes to the disabled, people seem to believe they should not uphold the law.”

Ducharme says that two other recent cases in which severely handicapped children died tragically have added to her concerns. In early December, Cathy Wilkieson, 43, g and her 16-year-old son, Ryan, who 0 had cerebral palsy and was partially

1 deaf and blind, died of carbon ^ monoxide poisoning in an apparent 8 murder-suicide in a garage at S Wilkieson’s parents’ home in 3 Hamilton. And on Dec. 26, Audrey I Cohen, a nine-year-old girl with seI vere mental and physical disabilities, was found badly scalded in the bathtub of her family’s suburban Toronto townhouse. An autopsy revealed that she died of asphyxiation, and police are still investigating.

Meanwhile, Latimer’s lawyer, Mark Brayford, of Saskatoon, plans to argue that his client’s confession, which was videotaped by the RCMP, should not have been admitted as evidence because it was taken without his consent. Brayford will also argue that the court should have allowed the jury to consider a third option, rather than restricting it to a conviction of firstor second-degree murder. And as he prepared to sort through another box of mail last week, Latimer said he was confident that he will win his appeal. Thousands of Canadians, it seems, are pulling for him.