- Published on Thursday, 25 November 2010 06:35
- Written by Dagmar Gontard
- Hits: 4722
Seldom has there been a case that divides public opinion as much as the tragic and complex story of Robert Latimer. Should we not, in all honesty, search our own hearts for the reasons behind such a division? Could it be that the case transcends the man? The text that follows is meant as a reflection on suffering, compassion and forgiveness.
October 24th 1993 Saskatchewan farmer Robert Latimer kills his 12-year old daughter, Tracy, by piping carbon monoxide into the cab of his pick-up truck.
The event immediately comes before the public eye. People are divided: some see a moving story of suffering and courage, while others see the hideous murder of a defenseless handicapped child. The legal process is set in motion. In 1994, Robert Latimer is found guilty of second-degree murder, a crime for which the mandatory sentence is life in prison with no chance of parole for 10 years.
Latimer appeals. In 1995, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal upholds his conviction. In 1997, the Supreme Court of Saskatchewan orders another trial because there had been jury tampering before his first trial. In December of that year, Judge Ted Noble recognizes Latimer’s act as one of “compassionate homicide” (a concept that does not exist in Canadian Criminal Code) and grants him a constitutional exemption. A sentence of less than two years is imposed. In 1998, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal sets aside constitutional exemption and upholds the mandatory sentence of at least ten years. Latimer appeals to the Supreme Court of Canada. On January 18th 2001, the Supreme Court upholds the life sentence and Robert goes to prison.
At this point, with Latimer behind bars, the story should die. It doesn’t. Widespread controversy continues across the country. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association launches a two-fold petition calling upon the Government to substantially reduce Robert Latimer’s sentence and to amend the Criminal Code so as to abolish mandatory minimum sentences. The website www.robertlatimer.ca (replaced by www.robertlatimer.net/) is set up in response to thousands messages of sympathy that are rolling in from all over the country. An association called “Friends of Robert Latimer” is created. Vigils in support of Robert are organized in major Canadian cities. A team of 135 “jail-birds” volunteers to serve Robert’s sentence on his behalf, each volunteer doing one month, so that he can return to his family.
At the same time, Latimer’s detractors continue to lash out at him, insisting that he must never get out of the jail.
Such a division of public opinion raises legitimate questions. If Latimer is a killer, why do so many people – and different polls show that they are majority (73%) – stand behind him? On the other hand, what makes his detractors so merciless?
There are many questions that arise from this case. Yet, the most important pertains to the real nature of Robert Latimer’s act. Michel Bujold set out on the journey to find out how to qualify it. The result of his musings is the book “The Gift of Death.” A gift of death? Can killing be proof of an unselfish act? Can it be proof of generosity? Proof of love?
All these questions can be asked provided we “put aside the judge’s gown”, just as Judge Noble did during the second trial. Indeed, we would be looking to no avail for “the gift of death” in the Criminal Code. It’s simply not there. Yet, if we open both, our minds and our hearts, we will understand what Robert Latimer’s story is about.
Tracy Latimer was born with severe cerebral palsy. She could have been a perfectly healthy baby of some eight pounds. Yet, during the 26 hours that it took her to come into this world, the fetus monitor in Saskatchewan hospital was broken. Oxygen deprivation went undetected and she was born “flat”. She was revived. But from that moment until her last day, Tracy would depend on other humans and their medical science for all her life needs. Despite her misfortune, Tracy was fortunate in that she had caring parents who loved her as she was and for what she was: their beautiful brown-eyed little girl.
Severe cerebral palsy is not a stable condition but increasingly degenerative. During Tracy’s life, many operations were needed to improve her quality of life. But as the years passed, not only did her condition not improve, it got worse. Only about 50% of children, who like Tracy suffer from severe cerebral palsy with total body involvement, reach the age of 10 years. The bodies of those who continue to live grow to a point that they can no longer support them. On the day she died, close to the age of 13 in calendar terms, Tracy’s body was about 97 in medical terms. She had mental capacity of a 4-months old baby, weighed 38 pounds, suffered from 6-8 seizures daily, had to be spoon-fed, was in almost constant horrible pain, was quadriplegic, she had a steel rod which had been wired to her spine and was penetrating into her pelvis area. The hip surgery for which she was scheduled would remove the upper part of her thigh, which would leave her leg loose.
On October 24th 1993, Robert Latimer did what he did.
The case immediately caught the attention of the media – the image of a father, propping his 12-year old daughter up in his pick-up and piping in exhaust fumes until she dies, what a sensational story! A cold-blooded murder? A compassionate homicide? A premeditated killing? A mercy killing? An act of euthanasia? Clearly, confusion reigned supreme with all these terms that were popping up in 10-second sound bites of the media.
Time to pause and clarify.
The common denominator in these ideas is human intervention to cause death. In short: killing. Killing is usually punishable by law. For a second-degree murder there is a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years, with no possibility of parole for 10 years. There is no mention in the Criminal Code of “mercy killing”, of “compassionate homicide” or of “euthanasia.” Many of Robert Latimer’s supporters blame Canadian judges and the Supreme Court for the cruel and unjust sentence imposed on him. Yet, as has already been mentioned, this exceptionally harsh decision was not made unanimously. In the absence of any amendment to the existing law, judge Noble’s “constitutional exemption” shows the difficulty in which the justice system is caught when judges’ hands are tied by imposed minimum mandatory sentences. Even before Noble’s ruling, the same discrepancy had been acknowledged when the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal was split, upholding Robert Latimer’s sentence by 2-1 votes.
In 1995, a special Senate Committee on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide unanimously recommended that the punishment for murder be reduced in cases where there is the essential element of compassion or mercy. The Committee acknowledged that it felt the need for a special category of compassionate homicide only because of the mandatory minimum sentences for murder. This is not solely a Canadian problem. Other nations are struggling with the same dilemma. In France, for instance, the controversy about euthanasia has been going on, without any significant change in the criminal code, for some forty years. Other countries, including Sweden and Switzerland, have amended their laws. Two other nations, Netherlands and Belgium, and the American state of Oregon went a step further when they legalized euthanasia. There has been no “slippery slope” in these countries, contrary to predictions of euthanasia’s opponents. Quite the reverse: the strict conditions serve to control the practice of euthanasia.
By the way, “the slippery slope” of “Nazi euthanasia” is repeatedly used as an argument against any leniency for Robert Latimer. Obviously, a terminological confusion reigns here as euthanasia and eugenics are being mixed up. Yet, euthanasia, a some 2 500-year old Greek word from “eu” (good) and “thanatos”(death), says what it means: a good death.
Another argument against Robert Latimer is the “sanctity of life.” Some believers say that we received our life from God and that we have to carry on with it until he decides to call us back to him. But then, can we apply ancient scripts to the medicalised dying of our time? If Tracy had been born some two thousand years ago she would not have lived. She would not have lived even if born a century ago. If she lived almost 13 years, it’s not because of God’s will, but because we, humans, have taken it upon ourselves to maintain her life.
How long should we prolong life? Under the influence of our new therapeutic techniques, the modern death is stretching out, dismembering itself, striking separately and successively different parts of the body. Should we wait till the last biological sign fades away? We don’t know. A modern death is no longer a natural one. Scientific progress has left us with the question that is expressed in concrete terms of surgical interventions, chemical treatments, intubations etc. How far should we go? How long should we oppose death? We don’t have the answers. We are trapped. Progress in the scientific field has not been followed by progress in bioethical field. We are floating in juridical and ethical void.
Robert and Tracy Latimer’s drama lies within this void. It is not solely a Canadian issue, but a universal one. It concerns our human society as a whole.
Despite this universal aspect of Robert Latimer’s tragic story, there is a Canadian specificity to it as regards the punishment imposed on him: the harshness of the sentence. It is due, without doubt, to the association of the case with the disabled. How did it happen? Because of the media. Journalists under pressure to use compact wordings have described Robert Latimer as a man “who killed his disabled daughter.” The wording became a label. In how many interviews, articles, letters, etc., be they in support of Robert or against him, was that label unconsciously reached for! This perpetuated the initial acceptance of the prosecutor’s claim that the disability had been the reason Tracy’s life was ended. Given the horror with which the killing of children and of vulnerable defenseless individuals is regarded in our society, it is quite understandable why Robert Latimer has been perceived by some as a cruel selfish murderer.
It is important to stress that this tunnel vision is not shared by all the members of the disabled community. Countless testimonies in support of Robert Latimer, from that very community, appeared in the media. Some of these messages of sympathy are posted on www.robertlatimer.ca. At the Victoria Vigil, in June 2001, the audience of some 100 individuals included Robert’s nephew who is quadriplegic, two children in wheelchairs suffering from cerebral palsy, a middle-aged adult who can walk only with the walker, one parent who lost a child to a disability similar to Tracy’s and, among the organizers, there was a woman whose daughter suffers from severe cerebral palsy.
Among the speakers at the Ottawa Vigil, in May 2001, were parents of a disabled girl who died at the age of 12. The lives of Éloïse Stone and Tracy Latimer were astonishingly parallel. Both girls endured the same debilitating symptoms of severe cerebral palsy. They both had loving parents who adored them and cared for them for many long years. Yet, as the years passed, the girls’ condition only deteriorated. At the age of twelve, their stories drastically differed. Éloïse’s parents, with the support of a medical team, came to the decision that they would no longer force her to live. There would be no more iron bars in her spine, no more operations on her hip and pelvis, no more force feeding through a tube to her stomach, no more intensive medication which would only prolong her agony and suffering.
Éloïse died of pneumonia, at home, in her parents’ arms.
Éloïse’s mother dedicated the book she wrote about her daughter to Laura and Robert Latimer. Éloïse’s father said at the vigil: “I am as guilty as Robert Latimer; I did what he did, but I let something else do it.”
Robert Latimer did what he did. For some his act will remain a murder. “Let’s shut him up!” they will claim. “Let’s move on! There’s nothing to be seen. There’s nothing more to be said.”
For others such a simplistic conclusion is not the solution. Robert Latimer’s drama is not unique. There are so many cases where people are caught in the same tragic situation. An ocean of suffering that breaks against our taboos, our prejudices, our hypocrisy and our fears. We all are guilty. Crucifying Robert Latimer will not save us.
Death is ugly and to die is sad, is a common saying. Since ancient times, humans have always coveted immortality. Yet, immortality is but a word that doesn’t really say anything, because the definition of life isn’t given by anything else than by death. The life that is, at the same time, the mortality, is not the opposite of the death; life and death are like twins, leaning against each other.
However, let it be said once more: it is accepted to talk about death, but only in a low voice. No one wants anything to do with the Reaper. “ Let’s chase her as far as possible! Let’s make her invisible!” This attitude towards death has prevailed in our “civilized” societies during the last half-century. Previously, death was less shameful and less indecent. One would rub shoulders with her more easily, as 70 to 80 % of people would die at home, surrounded by their family members, friends and neighbors. In the fifties and sixties, thanks to progress in medical science, patients would be sent more and more often to the hospital, obviously for practical reasons: for treatment and, hopefully, for recovery. Yet, despite the fantastic leaps forward in the scientific field, this progress cannot perform miracles. Nowadays, 70-80 % of deaths occur in hospitals. During the past half-century, we have evacuated death from our homes. We have relegated it to the hospital. We have cut ourselves off from life because we have denied her twin-sister. We have cut ourselves off from reality.
Nevertheless, this situation is not encountered all over the world. Years ago, in Madagascar, I had the opportunity to assist in a ceremony “famadihana” (changing or moving from one side to another). It took place in a village. Some sixty people gathered to celebrate “the coming back among the living” of a grandfather who died some twelve years ago. According to the tradition, the deceased are not buried but wrapped in silk scarves and laid on the ground, in the tombs. On the day of celebration, it is thus easy to take their remains out, to unfold the silk scarves and replace them with new ones. The village women who are sterile rush to touch the old discarded cloth, as they believe it will enable them to have children. Death becomes the source of life. If the tomb contains more than one dead, they all are carried outside. A great rejoicing follows. If the family is rich, zebus are killed. Everybody eats and drinks. There’s lots of dancing and singing. The dead are carried through the village before being returned to the tomb. In Madagascar, death is always present everywhere. The deceased continue to be part of life.
Some comment about the necromancy of Malgasy people. In my eyes, this ceremony is one among so many interesting examples of how different peoples comprehend life and death. I do not recommend imitating other nations or civilizations, yet knowing their traditions helps to better evaluate and understand our own. I believe that in our Western world we have to “reclaim” death. Far from considering it as a failure, we have to restore it to its legitimate place in life. Only then will it become easier to talk about it as we will learn to understand that, when the time comes – and we all have to die one day – death is not the negation of life, but simply a passage from one state to another, in the perpetual existence of Universe. A good death. A death that is not wished for, yet that is understood. A death that is accepted when the time comes.
I know that Robert Latimer felt, somewhere deep within him, that the time had come for his daughter Tracy. What he did was not a murder. It was a gift of death.
For more on the story of Latimer – see the Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Latimer – he is due for full day parole December 2010 This is later than normal because he refused to admit any wrong-doing. – John Draper