The Robert Latimer case and qualities of mercy

Published March 1, 2001

Vianney Carriere

THERE HAVE BEEN few events in recent memory that have stirred a greater number of complex issues than the case of Robert Latimer, convicted of murder in the death of his 12-year-old severely handicapped daughter, Tracy. Among these are issues of applying justice to both victim and accused, of justice versus compassion, of strict versus humane applications of law, end of life issues – these, perhaps being the thorniest of all. At the periphery of the Latimer case, still more issues are raised by the reactions of people to it; whenever a society becomes polarized to the extent that one side of a controversy cannot conceive of the other point of view or seeks in all sincerity to equate dissent with evil, then the time has come to draw back and let reason in. There has been too much of the former, and, sadly, too little of the latter in this case.

However one may feel about the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision reaffirming Mr. Latimer’s sentence of life imprisonment without parole for at least 10 years, the court’s decision, taken objectively and in its entirety, stands as a model of tolerance applied to the law. The court, in short, took a reasoned, necessarily legalistic view that society should endeavor to emulate. For nowhere in the court’s reasons for judgment is there anything but the utmost compassion for Mr. Latimer, his daughter, and his family. Nowhere in the court’s decision is there the demonization of the opposite point of view that seems, sadly, to have characterized the debate in society and on editorial pages. Nowhere is Robert Latimer, even as he stood convicted of murder, characterized as anything but a tormented soul. The court, even as it reaffirmed a life sentence, seemed to see no evil in the man himself. The sin was deplored; the sinner drew empathy. The circumstances that spawned the crime tugged the hearts of even these seasoned, dispassionate jurists. “It is apparent from the evidence in this case that he (Mr. Latimer) faced challenges of the sort most Canadians can only imagine,” the judgment states.

How easily reason can be cast aside in these cases was graphically and appallingly illustrated in the aftermath of the judgment by the newspaper columnist who intoned as a mantra “Murder is murder is murder.” Not so! This is a simplification that results in a patently false premise. Were it not, after all, for the Criminal Code’s finely nuanced considerations of different kinds of homicide, a diligent doctor who tragically loses a patient on the operating table might well find himself in the same court of law as the felon who takes a life in the course of committing a robbery. Both, after all, have killed someone. The Criminal Code recognizes that not all killings result in equal culpability.

The end result of the court decision for Robert Latimer is that he is now incarcerated for an indefinite term. And this raises yet another issue, which the Supreme Court addressed in its decision, since it had been mentioned tangentially in the appeal. Why do we put people in jail?

The court singled out three reasons for doing so: rehabilitation, specific deterrence or protection, and denunciation. In this case, the court went on to say, neither of the first two principles are triggered. It added: “The objective of denunciation mandates that a sentence should communicate society’s condemnation of that particular offender’s conduct. In short, a sentence with a denunciatory element represents a symbolic, collective statement that the offender’s conduct should be punished for encroaching on our society’s basic code of values ?” Robert Latimer, in other words, notwithstanding what he and his family have already been through, must serve as an example of the paramount value that society places on human life.

The crux of the court’s ruling then followed. The minimum mandatory sentence, the court said, “is not grossly disproportionate in this case?” The sentence, “although not free of debate ? is not out of step with valid penological goals or sentencing principles.”

And then the Supreme Court, in an eloquent expression of very human torment over this complex, heart-rending case, did something interesting and rare. It added a lengthy and largely gratuitous section in which it effectively suggested an alternative to its own decision. It said in part:

“It is worth referring again to the royal prerogative of mercy ? Where the courts are unable to provide an appropriate remedy in cases that the executive sees as unjust imprisonment, the executive is permitted to dispense mercy and order the release of the offender. The royal prerogative of mercy is the only potential remedy for persons who have exhausted their rights of appeal ? But the prerogative is a matter for the executive, not the courts. The executive will undoubtedly, if it chooses to consider the matter, examine all the underlying circumstances involving the tragedy of Tracy Latimer ? that took place some seven years ago. Since that time, Mr. Latimer has undergone two trials and two appeals ? with attendant publicity and consequential agony for him and his family.”

What an amazing and hopeful Christian sentiment to come from the highest court in a country whose society is consistently described as post-Christian. It is said, after all, that God never closes one door without opening another.

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