Friday, December 7, 2007

May She Rest In Peace, May He Find Mercy

Robert Latimer was denied day parole this week. In 1994 he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 10 years.

In 1993 (the year my daughter with special needs was born), Latimer placed his 12-year-old daughter, Tracy, in the cab of his pickup truck and piped in exhaust gas.

Before you rush to condemn him (the natural response and the one you will likely have even after reading the rest of this story), let me tell you a little bit more about this father and daughter.
Tracy was born with cerebral palsy and possessed the mental capacity of a three-month-old child. She could not speak and was entirely dependent on her parents and needed round-the-clock care.
Latimer’s voice broke as he described the four surgeries his daughter had already had and the fifth one that was being proposed.
One of the surgeries was to remove a quarter of Tracy’s femur because one of her hips had been dislocated for more than a year.
Because of the anti-seizure medication she was on, the Latimer family was told the only pain relief she could have would be regular strength Tylenol.
He said he and his wife were opposed to another surgery.
"We saw it as mutilating a child who was already suffering."
At the time of her death, Tracy weighed less than 40 pounds.
Latimer told the board the killing was not a snap decision and came after his wife said they would have to call in Dr. Jack Kevorkian, an American who helped people commit suicide.
He said the two never discussed his decision to kill Tracy and his wife didn’t find out how her daughter died until the autopsy.
No excuses, say you. How dare he play judge, jury and executioner on anybody's life, let alone his own defenseless and totally vulnerable child's?

Let me give you my take on this sad, sad story.

Tracy Latimer was a real person. A child who deserved to be protected, cared for and loved as only a parent can do. And I believe that she was.

The original story is 14 years old. And raises many, many issues. I followed it very closely from the fateful day in 1993, through Latimer's trial and appeals until his conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2001. I, like many Canadians and people from around the world, felt that I had a particular stake in it. My child, too, lives in the world of disability.

I thank God daily that the Blue Jay's (pet blog name) challenges come nowhere near those that Tracy and her family lived with. But I well know the challenges faced by our family and many, many others. On a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis as we struggle to meet our children's basic needs. Then to meet their often numerous and complex medical needs. To access services to make their lives and the other family members lives better. To have them accepted and valued in the community. To do all that while holding down a job and trying to provide a "normal" a life as possible for their siblings. And for ourselves.

That I know a fair bit about. Both personally and through the relationships I have developed with others in this community. Yes, I have been to Holland. I have seen its beauty and known its heartache. I believe I know a fair amount of what I speak.

I also know that my position on this issue isn't popular. That many will and do disagree with me. Including many (if not most) in the disability community.

I have spent many hours thinking about Tracy Latimer. And her mom and dad.

And here is what I know.

I know that Tracy was in near daily pain. Considerable pain. That, for medical reasons, her family was powerless to relieve.

I know that she had underwent four surgeries in the twelve years of her life and was scheduled for a fifth one. One that her parents disagreed with.

I know that at Latimer's second trial, the jury recommended he be eligible for parole after a year, even though the minimum sentence for second-degree murder is 25 years with no chance of parole for 10 years.

I know that the court granted Latimer a constitutional exemption from the minimum sentence for second-degree murder, explaining that, for Latimer, the minimum sentence would constitute "cruel and unusual punishment."

I know that the judge called Tracy Latimer's murder a "rare act of homicide that was committed for caring and altruistic reasons". And he went on to state that "That is why for want of a better term this is called compassionate homicide."

I know that despite this, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal overturned Noble's ruling, imposing the mandatory minimum sentence: 25 years, with no parole before 10 years.

I know that unusual as the Latimer case is, there are related cases, such as battered women who have killed their batterers – often their husbands – and received leniency from the courts.

I know that special legislation is being considered for victims who kill their oppressors, based on self-defence.

Here is what I believe.

  • That Mr. Latimer was motivated by the best of intentions.
  • That he wasn't simply wanting to remove a 'burden' that he found too much to bear from his life and that of his wife.
  • That he wasn't judging Tracy's life as being of less value by virtue of her disability.
  • That he likely made the hardest, most horrific decision that he ever had to make in his life. And that decision was motivated by the depth of his love for his child.
  • That he suffers for that every single day. Not in the sense of being 'sorry' or 'remorseful' for his actions as the parole board requires him to be, but in the sense that although he believes completely and knows in his heart that he did the 'right' thing for his child, he has to live with fact that he took his child's life. That doing the 'right thing' for this child required him to kill her. And that must cause him amazing agony every single day.
  • That nothing 'we' can say or do to him can really affect him. Not where it counts. Deep in his heart.
  • There are two old legal maxims that come to mind. Combine them and they state what I believe occurred here, from a legal point of view. "Hard cases and bad facts both make bad law."

I know many have no compassion for Latimer.

Many would say that his actions threaten the safety, value and sanctity of the lives of individuals with disabilities. That it leaves the door open for 'well-meaning' individuals to put a value judgment on other people's lives. And even worse, that it makes it even easier for some to see our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters as being only a drain on society and expendable for the greater good.

I don't see it that way. His child was in constant pain. With no relief in sight. I believe that that is what motivated his actions. As horrible as they were. Just as bad facts made bad law, so too bad situations can sometimes make for horrific choices. I can only feel pity. And empathy. For Tracy. For her mom. And, yes, for her father too.

And for those who only want to rant and wail against Latimer, I say this ... if you want to honour Tracy and her memory, put even a quarter of that energy where it will do some good.

Put it into lobbying your governments for better services for individuals with disabilities and their families.

Put it into promoting compassion and understanding in your community when it comes to the disabled.

Put it into lobbying your governments for better services for individuals with disabilities and their families.

Take some of that energy and call up a family you know in your community and ask if there is anything you can do to help. Run an errand? Do some housecleaning? Offer a drive to a medical appointment? Spend some time with challenged person so as to give their caretaker a much needed break? Or spend some special time with one of the siblings?

One of the nicest things someone ever did for us came from a mom who volunteered at my children's school. She asked if she could just spend some time, do some activities with a child who needed that little bit of extra attention. She was very gifted artistically and that relationship meant so much to my youngest, who felt like she was playing second fiddle to the needs of our oldest.

If you don't personally know of such a family, call up a local disability organization and ask if you can volunteer? Or if they know of a family who would appreciate some assistance.

Did I mention putting some energy into lobbying your governments for better services for individuals with disabilities and their families?

I sincerely hope some compassion and understanding will be shown, that justice will prevail and Mr. Latimer will be soon be released. To return to his home and community, where, if I recall correctly, he enjoys widespread support. To return to his wife, who continues to remain steadfast at his side. To grieve privately for his daughter. As he is entitled to.

~ I apologize for the length of this post. It was a situation that touched me at the time. And, obviously, still does. ~

Update: I mentioned above that many in the disability community feared that Latimer's actions threatened the safety, value and sanctity of the lives of individuals with disabilities. Although somewhat dated, here is a good example of that reasoning.


Balancing Act said...

I hope she rests in peace as well. What a disturbing story. I can't imagine doing anything like that to any of my children but can't say that I have been in his shoes. It's a tradegy no matter how you look at it.

misshailey said...

I believe that if you kill your child you should go to jail for life.

absolutelytrue said...

What a sad story. There are no winners here, and whether behind bars or not, he will suffer for the rest of his life.

I can't condone what he did, but only feel but for the grace of God, there go I. Who knows what you would do faced with a situation of having your child in constant agony with no relief?

It's horrific to even think about.