A story of justice and mercy
About the Author
Seventeen years ago, a crime was committed in rural Saskatchewan that took seven years to resolve, though the perpetrator confessed.
Should the law have prevailed as it did, or should human decency have intervened and recognized criminality was being applied to a non-criminal?
Some readers will recall how farmer Robert Latimer's killing of his cerebral palsy-afflicted 12-year-old daughter in October 1993 unleashed a maelstrom of opinions.
In a partly biographical, relatively short but intensely focused polemic about this case, B.C. journalist Gary Bauslaugh invites condemnation by boldly stating: "Robert Latimer is a man who committed an act of love and mercy that few others would have had the mental strength and determination to do."
Bauslaugh, an avowed humanist, is no stranger to controversy. His views in magazines like Humanist Perspectives and Skeptical Inquirer challenge religious dogmatists and test the limits of societal change by advocating alternatives to suicide for cases of terminal or intolerable illness.
Bauslaugh focuses his crosshairs on Latimer's decision to end his daughter Tracy's life and on the rigid laws that failed to be merciful. He describes how the media frenzy and national debates transformed the faces of a father and daughter into symbols for groups advancing their own agendas.
He effectively weaves the tragic events surrounding the Latimer family into a call for enlightened legislation.
Using his intimate knowledge of the case, he discusses the roles police, lawyers and alarmists played in depicting Latimer as an unrepentant, cold-blooded killer. But he acknowledges that Latimer's stubbornness and naiveté towards the law was detrimental to his defence.
Bauslaugh is critical of the means by which supportive voices of friends and neighbours, who described Latimer as, "a friendly, soft-spoken and quiet man," were silenced by two groups: the Christian right and associations for the severely disabled.
He accuses the first group of selectively quoting biblical tenets while conveniently ignoring passages about mercy. He derides the latter for illogically suggesting that all severely disabled persons were at risk if Latimer had been shown leniency.
Concluding that the case was a mercy-killing by a loving parent, Bauslaugh does offer this caveat: "I cannot shake the feeling that he ought not to have done it."
He likely concedes that only Solomon's wisdom could have prevented that years of judicial wrangling that ended in 2001 when Latimer began serving his second-degree murder sentence.
Bauslaugh implores Canadians to recognize that several European countries and some U.S. states have enacted more permissive legislation regarding end-of-life dilemmas such as assisted suicide and euthanasia.
He argues that Latimer's long, arduous and expensive (especially for taxpayers) journey through trials, incarcerations and appeals arose from a rigid definition of murder and the judiciary's decision to prohibit the jury's right to nullify or change a court's sentencing recommendations. Bauslaugh reminds readers that jury nullification was effectively wielded during Dr. Henry Morgentaler's abortion trials in the 1970s and suggests that similarly contentious case influenced Latimer's.
After witnessing a biased panel denying Latimer parole in 2007, Bauslaugh helped persuade the B.C. Civil Liberties Association to launch an appeal that granted Latimer day parole from his B.C. prison in February 2008, albeit with conditions Bauslaugh calls "petty harassment."
Latimer currently lives in Victoria, working part-time with a local electrician, and recently had his parole conditions relaxed, allowing him to spend five nights in his apartment and two nights in a halfway house.
He will be eligible for full parole in December, having served his time for being "a desperate person who resorted to a desperate action."
People who are against the notion of mercy in our courts may want to reflect upon this the next time they request it for a routine traffic violation.
Bauslaugh savages the Parole Board appointees who appeared to be making an example of Latimer, and also makes a convincing argument that jury nullification, though frowned upon by the Supreme Court of Canada, was an avenue that should have been open to Latimer and his legal counsel....
...Robert Latimer: A Story of Justice and Mercy, which was released earlier this month, is thought-provoking, and effectively raises issues that will have to be dealt with, once and for all, by the justice system.
Damian J. Penny is a family law practitioner with Bedford Law Inc. in Bedford, N.S.