Throughout the years since murdering his disabled daughter, Tracy, Robert Latimer has enjoyed the support of seventy percent of Canadians. Seven out of ten Canadians support euthanasia of the terminally and chronically ill, or severely disabled people.
At various times, Robert Latimer has been called a model citizen and referred to as “salt of the earth.” Most of this drivel will be addressed later in this article. But before people rush to lionize the man or bestow the Order of Canada upon him, perhaps we should pause to consider the case of Canada’s folk hero Robert Latimer. There was a side to the story that Canada’s mainstream media did not report, and some media outlets even suppressed.
On October 24th 1993, Canadian farmer Robert Latimer decided it was time to kill his twelve-year old daughter. Tracy had cerebral palsy due to a lack of oxygen during her birth; she had undergone three successful surgeries to improve her quality of life. A fourth surgery was planned to ease pain from a dislocated hip. Despite the remarkable success of previous surgeries, her parents were horrified at the prospect of a fourth, and Robert Latimer decided to take matters into his own hands. His next action would set off a seven year ordeal involving two trials and numerous appeals, and spark public debate about mercy killing -- ultimately challenging the conscience of a nation.
Premeditation, cover-up, and lies
Robert Latimer planned his daughter’s murder for close to two weeks. He considered administering a drug overdose, or shooting Tracy in the head, but he finally settled on gassing her to death. (End of the road, kid.) On a bright sunny Sunday his wife, Laura, and their other children went to church, leaving Tracy at home with Robert. He murdered her with exhaust fumes from his truck.
He took Tracy’s limp body, reeking with exhaust fumes, back to the farmhouse and put it in her bed (as though sleeping) for Laura or one of their other children to find when they got home. Everything worked according to plan: Laura discovered the corpse after coming home and preparing lunch. She cried that something was wrong with Tracy and called to her husband to phone for help. Robert called the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), telling them Tracy had died in her sleep. The body was still in a sleeping pose when the RCMP arrived, and Robert told them again that Tracy died in her sleep. The police suspected a mercy killing and voiced their concerns to the coroner’s office.
Latimer destroyed evidence -- cutting up and burning the hose he used to murder Tracy. When he discovered that the police planned an autopsy of her body, he interjected and told them he wanted it cremated, which seemed to surprise his wife.
Robert pulled Laura into their bedroom: a few minutes later, they emerged and asked together for cremation. Robert continued to maintain that Tracy died in her sleep until the RCMP (with toxicology results showing lethal levels of carbon monoxide in her blood) finally coaxed a confession from him on November 4th -- ten days after the murder.
Only then did he own up to his actions:
"Laura went to church before eleven. So then I went outside, and the hose was in the old tin shed by the barn. . . . Then I went and got her, she was in the wheelchair, and took her to the shed [where the truck was parked]. . . . I had to cut the hose with the hack saw, hook it up to the exhaust … and put it in the back window, let it run. . . . After about 25 to twelve or so she made three or four coughing noises, she never started to cry, it was about seven or eight minutes when that happened, and that was about it. . . . I let it run 'till noon. I was timing all this stuff. There was a tractor tire in the back. I was sitting there watching through the back window. . . . At twelve o’clock I shut it off, put her back in bed. "
Laura Latimer stood by her man
What did Laura know about Robert’s intentions? He told police he shared his intentions for Tracy with Laura. During his 1993 confession, a police Sergeant asked: “For how long, Bob, had you thought about doing this?” Bob replied, “Well, pretty much decided after that doctor appointment.”
“October 12, approximately.”
“When did you discuss this with Laura?”
“We talked about it that night.”
Robert was asked what Laura thought about “it” [killing Tracy]. Robert answered, “She─no different than mine, she just said she wished she could call a Jack Kevorkian. She never participated in the planning. Just thoughts in general.”
Did this mean that Laura knew his murderous plan? Later, when police asked Robert why he chose October 24th to kill Tracy, he replied: “Oh, that’s the only occasion, I just knew it was one of the rare occasions.” Didn’t this also occur to Laura, particularly in light of their discussion about “it” twelve days earlier? There is some conflicting testimony about Laura’s knowledge.
In November of 1994 Robert Latimer went on trial for first degree murder. Although Laura was originally listed as a witness for the prosecution, she switched sides to the defence. She was the last defence witness to testify: “Her birth was way, way sadder than her death. We lost Tracy when she was born,” Laura stated.
A sympathetic jury would only convict Robert Latimer of second degree murder. He was given the mandatory sentence of no less than ten years in prison. He appealed his sentence all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ordered a retrial.
The second trial was a replay of the first. Laura told defence counsel that when police told her Robert confessed to killing Tracy, she was initially shocked and angry. However, Laura told the court she was happy to discover Tracy’s lifeless body. Was she expecting something? Laura said she was not aware Robert was up to murder when she left for church. Laura thought Tracy died of a seizure. When the RCMP was Robert if Laura knew he was going to kill Tracy when she left for church that fateful morning, he replied, “No.”
Laura did not grieve Tracy’s death: she said she grieved Tracy’s birth.” Laura collaborated with the defence team to paint Tracy’s life in the worst possible light of unremitting pain and anguish.
Police asked Robert if he told Laura what had happened when she arrived home from church. He said, “No.” Didn’t she wonder why her daughter’s room and body stank of exhaust fumes? Why was Laura so quick to conclude the cause of death was a seizure when Tracy was prone to milder petit mals, not grand mal seizures.
Laura said Robert was a “100 percent honest man.” Not true, as I have shown. It was Robert Latimer’s legal defence strategy to fixate on Tracy’s disability, her pain --not her abilities, happiness, and joys in life. Laura participated in the tragedy of the strategy. She persisted in downplaying Tracy’s humanity, only grudgingly admitting to the prosecution lawyer her daughter’s good times.
Tracy’s life was miserable:
That was Laura’s story and she tried to stick to it
Was Tracy’s life miserable? Was Tracy’s life unworthy of life? Was her life one of continual suffering, as defence lawyer Mark Brayford, Laura Latimer, and the media portrayed it? Did Tracy have no happiness, no joy? Did her life have no redeeming features?
Laura said in court that Tracy’s surgery left her utterly miserable:
"Tracy was in a lot of pain. Tracy was miserable. She used to be a happy little girl, and she’d turned into someone who just sat slumped, just waiting to be moved. She was --she was very unhappy. . . . She would sort of sit slumped in her chair. Once in a while she would kind of bat at a toy, but no, she was miserable, and it was getting -- it was getting harder and harder to even have her comfortable."
The image of Tracy painted at the trial and reported by the media was untrue. Misery and pain were not the sum total of Tracy Latimer’s life any more than misery and pain are the sum total of the lives of countless other people with severe disabilities. Tracy was a happy child. She did have joy in her life -- the irrepressible joy of childhood -- despite her disability. She enjoyed music, sleigh rides, television, games, parties, the circus and pets. This was mentioned by various witnesses at the trial. Tracy was dressed as a princess the Halloween before she was murdered. On her last Easter, Laura wrote in Tracy’s communication book: “Brian and Lindsay [Tracy’s siblings] got up at 5:30 to hunt for eggs. We spent most of the day at Tracy’s cousin Lynn’s place. . . . Tracy spent a happy day, she ate a nice supper, and really enjoyed the desserts.”
At her little sister’s sleep-over, Tracy became too excited to sleep. She communicated and vocalized. Tracy had preferences and made choices. Tracy had a keen sense of mischief. Laura wrote about Tracy’s mischievousness:“Tracy was the worst girl at sleep-over, up at ten to seven, laughing and vocalizing.” Tracy would take her dad’s glasses off his face, throw them and smile.” Laura said at the trial,
"She would sometimes -- her hands would touch his glasses, and she would -- her hands would close on them, and she would wave them around in the air, and he would say to her, ‘you’, just like you know she was naughty or something, and she would laugh and laugh. She used to --and then sometimes she would drop them, and she get a lot of pleasure out of that."
Apparently seeing people grope for their glasses amused Tracy.
Laura wrote in Tracy’s communication book: “After supper, we had a bonfire and Tracy sat outside until about nine o’clock. It was a beautiful night. Tracy seemed alert and happy. . . .” Laura continued: "Tracy had a good weekend, sat out on the deck lots. Grandma and grandpa came yesterday, she’s so happy to see grandma.”
Tracy adored her family, her face brightened at the very sight of them. She went to a developmental centre each day for a regular school day. There were discussions about integrating her into the regular school system. She went to the developmental centre Monday to Friday and came home each day on the same school bus as her siblings and the other children, and did so right up to the Friday before her murder.
Tracy Latimer, like every other human being, had something to bring to the world. At one point
Apparently Tracy’s parents forgot what she taught them. They were tired, their patience had run out, there was a new baby in the house and it was time to move on with life. Tracy’s father put her out of his misery.
Millions of disabled people have had misery in their lives. Many live alone, unloved, sometimes in pain. Sadly, that has been the reality for disabled people throughout history. But being miserable is not a reason to kill disabled people! If misery were a reason for death, not of us with disabilities would be safe. It would create open season on the disabled. The answer is not to kill us in a flimsy excuse of stopping misery or bestowing so-called death with dignity. The answer lies elsewhere: it lies in proper pain management, and seeking life with dignity, and inclusion, especially for those who do not have it.
The murder of Tracy Latimer at the hands of her father, his callous timing of how long it took for her to die, his reluctance to take responsibility for his horrible deed, and his attempts to destroy evidence should have prompted public condemnation and made him a pariah. Au contraire! Robert Latimer became a kind of Canadian folk hero. Throughout the seven year legal ordeal in thre murder of Tracy, he enjoyed the support of over seventy percent of Canadians.
Robert Latimer/Susan Smith
A year after Robert Latimer murdered his daughter, American Susan Smith put her car into a South Carolina lake, drowning her two little boys, Alex and Michael. Why was Susan Smith universally reviled after killing her children while Robert Latimer became a folk-hero after killing his child? The difference was this: Susan Smith killed her two healthy children while Robert Latimer killed one disabled child. Tracy was not cute: Michael and Alex Smith were adorable. What should we make of such a dramatic difference in public response? Are disabled children worth less than healthy children? Would Robert Latimer have been a folk-hero if Tracy was a healthy child?
Media blindness. Media deafness.
The Canadian media could not see past Tracy’s disability to the little girl who was. In her book, A Voice Unheard: The Latimer Case and People with Disabilities, Canadian author and disability advocate Ruth Enns made a revealing comment about the Canadian media anti-disability bias in reporting the Latimer case:
". . . [I]n the media coverage, she [Tracy] was less significant tan the person who killed her. Of the eighty headlines only twenty-five mentioned nor alluded to Tracy. Of those, only seven identified her simply by name or as a daughter, girl or child: . . . Only three of the eighty headlines referred to Tracy [sic] without some negative qualifier, as in the CP article in the Montreal Gazette, “Father had no choice but to kill girl."
The media ignored extensive court testimony revealing Tracy’s humanity, happiness and joys. One must conclude that there was an intentional suppression of information that warped the notion of balanced reporting about Tracy’s life. Inaccurate exaggerations about her pain persist to this day, even though it was clearly established that it was intermittent. It was obvious that she had more intelligence than -- as was widely reported -- a four month old baby. It was as though the media revealed its own disabilities: blindness and deafness to the humanity of Tracy Latimer. Tracy did not get a voice; she became an “it.”
Disabled people who opposed Robert Latimer were given sparse coverage while the media sought out those few people with disabilities who agreed with him. The Canadian public was presented with a desperate view of Tracy Latimer and this contributed to the massive public support he still enjoys. This public support was actually part of his last appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, for a constitutional exemption from the mandatory sentence for second degree murder.
The indictment of Canada stood for all to see. From the beginning of the investigation, Robert Latimer enjoyed a climate of support and sympathy -- from the initial police investigation to jury decisions. One appeal judge called Latimer “typical salt of the earth . . . a devoted family man . . . loving, caring nurturing.” He referred to Tracy as “tragically disfigured” and “born clinically dead and need[ed] to be resuscitated” and thereafter lived in constant pain.
This judge also said “the appellant has no criminal record.” But he knew better. The appeal judge was Chief Justice E.D. Bayda, who was no stranger to Latimer, having presided over a 1974 rape trial of Robert Latimer. In May of that year, a Saskatchewan jury found the then 21 year old Latimer guilty of rape of a 15 year old girl in the small town of Wilkie on September 8th 1973. Based upon a technicality, the sentence was overthrown on appeal, effectively quashing the public record of Latimer’s rape conviction.
Things took a bizarre twist when prosecution lawyer from the first trial, Randy Kirkham, was charged with jury irregularities and the case was, as stated above, ultimately appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. In February of 1996, the high court ordered a retrial, which commenced in October of 1997.
Mood of the second trial
Latimer’s second trial was on the lesser charge of second degree murder; the second jury was even more sympathetic to Robert. Although the jury reluctantly convicted him of second degree murder, they recommended a sentence less than the minimum allowed by law and that he be eligible for parole after one year. Latimer’s legal counsel then applied for a constitutional exemption based upon Section 12 of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms: “Everyone has the right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.”
The mother of another girl with cerebral palsy attended the trial. Charlotte Cooper of Stony Plain Alberta was horrified. She reported:
The whole trial was grotesque . . . It was hard to believe the levity in the courtroom, the joking and congeniality between the judge, the lawyers and the Latimers. The media people said they’d never seen such laughter in a murder trial. It was like everyone decided to forget tat a child had been killed.
Judge Noble’s ignoble decision
Apparently “the right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment” applied to Robert Latimer but not to his daughter. Judge Ted Noble granted an unprecedented constitutional exemption from the mandatory life sentence with no chance of parole for at least ten years in favor of a two year sentence.
Judge Noble called Latimer a “devoted family man.” Really? A devoted family man would not murder his child, timing how long it took for her to die (one-thousand one, one-thousand two …), and then put the body in her bed for other family members to stumble upon. (Surprise!) Judge Noble spoke about Robert Latimer “the model citizen.” Model citizens do not willfully destroy evidence; they do not lie to police.
Noble said the Latimer case was isolated and not a signal for others to follow. Did he really think others would not follow Latimer’s lead? He only had to look at the number of mercy killings that took place after Latimer’s first trial and conviction in 1994. Ryan Wilkieson, a teenager with cerebral palsy, was murdered with carbon monoxide by his mother. Autistic Charles Blais was drowned by his mother in their Montreal home. A physician, Dr. Nancy Morrison, killed Halifax cancer patient Paul Mills. Canadian MS sufferer Austin Bastable was assisted in his suicide by Jack Kevorkian. Winnipeg senior Bert Doerksen helped his suicidal wife die by carbon monoxide poisoning. Nova Scotian Mary Jane Fogerty was convicted of assisting her diabetic friend Brenda Barnes commit suicide. (Fogarty received a suspended sentence and was ordered to perform 300 hours of community service.) Ten year old Katie Lynn Baker of British Columbia, who had Rett Syndrome, was starved to death by her mother. None resulted in any jail time.
Judge Noble spoke of the Latimer case as “compassionate homicide.” The media adopted the term and cheered his ruling as “courageous” and “breaking new legal ground.” Noble may as well have declared a new legal underclass in Canada: the handicapped and disabled. That was the implication, regardless of guarantees to the contrary in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Canada’s version of a Constitution).
The prosecution appealed the sentence to the Saskatchewan Court of Appeals and the mandatory sentence was put in place. Robert Latimer then appealed to the Supreme Court for the constitutional exemption to be reinstated.
Canada’s climate of support for “mercy killers”
Regardless of the media manipulating public support for Robert Latimer, Canada is still confronted with the ugly reality that a climate of support for mercy killers was established. The Latimer case played an important role in introducing to the public mindset the idea of “compassionate homicide” for the disabled.
Why were two juries who heard the full testimonies so sympathetic to Robert Latimer? The first refused to convict him of first degree murder, opting for a second-degree murder conviction. Based upon clear and irrefutable evidence the second jury was compelled to convict Latimer of second-degree murder but recommended a sentence of one year instead of the mandatory life sentence with no chance of parole for at least ten years. Why were the police and courts so sympathetic to Robert Latimer? Why did he become a folk hero? Is the thought of living with a disability in one’s family so abhorrent to Canadians? Latimer claimed he chose to “commit suicide” for his daughter. Suicide by proxy?
Between the first and second trial, Canada’s governing Liberal Party adopted an official policy favoring assisted suicide. After the second trial, Canada’s Justice Minister, Anne McLellan, said she would consider changing Canada’s Criminal Code to permit lenient sentences for second-degree murder in “exceptional circumstances.”
In April of 1998, Justice Minister McLellan wrote to me regarding my concerns about the Latimer case as well as assisted suicide and euthanasia. She said, in part,
"Questions ranging from quality of medical care available to seriously ill and dying people to the moral questions involving a person’s power to control his or her own life and even the value of life itself must be considered when debating this subject." [Emphasis added]
I was left to wonder: The value of which lives are up for consideration and who will do the considering? Does Canada’s Justice Minister envision a different standard of “medical care” for “seriously ill and dying people” than the rest of the population? Better or worse?
Supreme Court decisions by mob rule?
As the Canadian Supreme Court began to deliberate the Latimer appeal for a constitutional exemption from the mandatory life sentence for send-degree murder, the media contacted Robert Latimer at his farm for comment: “It’s obvious, isn’t it?” Latimer said, “The majority of people seem to understand.” He was relying on public support to sway the Supreme Court. In a written submission to the High Court, his legal team wrote, “the vast majority of Canadians are outraged” at the sentence imposed on an “anguished father.”
In January 2001, Canada’s Supreme Court upheld Latimer’s second-degree sentence and sent him to prison to serve his life sentence without chance of parole for at least ten years. Immediately, tens of thousands of petitions began circulating across Canada gathering signatures asking the federal government to reduce or commute Latimer’s sentence. Numerous Canadians offered to serve portions of his prison time for him.
Two months after Latimer was sent to prison, a woman in Montreal murdered her disabled daughter. The child’s name was Chelsea Craig; she was fourteen years old and had had a sunny disposition. Although her mother was charged with first-degree murder, rumbling of public support immediately began to rumble.
Robert Latimer only served seven years of his sentence then received day-parole last month. His case was championed by lawyer Jason Gratl. President of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. Gratl said, “I am just so happy this travesty of justice has been reversed, ….” The Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s Allan Borovoy thought that expecting Latimer to serve the minimum requirement of his sentence was a “national disgrace.”
It’s a scary time to be disabled (as I am) in Canada; the winds of public opinion blow cold. Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper conducted a public opinion about the early parole of Latimer. More than 80% of respondents agreed with his early release from the minimum requirement of ten years in prison before parole.
Unwelcome in my country
At the end of the day, a severely disabled person like me is faced with the disturbing reality that public opinion surveys consistently show that over seventy percent of Canadians agree with assisted suicide for chronically terminally ill and severely disabled, and sympathize with killers severely disabled people. It is hard for me, as a Canadian chronically ill and disabled with multiple sclerosis, to feel kinship with my fellow Canadian citizens knowing most people I meet on the street would support my suicide rather than prevent it.
I had no idea most Canadians hold people like me in such low regard.
 Originally published under the title “The Murder of Tracy Latimer” in The Human Life Review (New York), 2001. Tracy’s mother, Laura, said they were of the view that the upcoming was not the “end of the road.” Transcript of Court Proceedings: Between Her Majesty the Queen and Robert L. Latimer, Q.J.B., vol. III, lines 4-5, p.651. Proceedings, vol.II, lines 8-16, p.590. Laura Latimer testified to an oily smell in the hallway and Tracy’s room, which disappeared when the body is removed. Theresa Huyghebaert, North Battleford (SK) Group home manager testified in court that Tracy had short petit mall seizures. Laura Latimer also gave testimony that Tracy’s seizures were reduced and controlled with drugs. References at the trial of Tracy being a happy child are too numerous to mention in this article. Read at the trial. Proceedings. Proceedings. Proceeding testimony of psychiatrist Dr. Robin Menzies revealed at the time of Tracy’s death she was on ordinary Tylenol. “Tolerance Shown for Mercy Killings,” the Toronto Globe and Mail, 11 January 1999. Polls consistently revealed most Canadians thought Robert Latimer’s sentence was too harsh. Ruth Enns, A Voice Unheard: The Latimer Case and People With Disabilities (Halifax, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing, 1999) p. 55. “Who is the real Robert Latimer? The judge who sentenced him for rape now calls him salt of the earth.” Alberta Report, 04 September 1995, p.29. Ibid. “‘Error’ gives farmer shot at new trial: Latimer jurors secretly interviewed.” The Edmonton Journal, 26 October, 1995, A3. The prosecution lawyer Randy Kirkham was charged with attempting to obstruct justice for allegedly have police interview prospective jurors about their views on issues such as religion, abortion and mercy killing. Kirkham was acquitted of the charge in June of 1998. ProLife News Canada, February 1998, p.9. Charlotte Cooper’s seventeen year old daughter with cerebral palsy had the same series of operations. “Changes to Criminal Code considered: Justice Minister encourages debate on euthanasia.” The Edmonton Journal, 07 November, 1997, A3. Ian Mulgrew, “Robert Latimer granted day parole,” 27 February 2008, The National Post online, http://www.nationalpost.com/news/story.html?id=338933 , Accessed from the internet 12 March 2008.