Latimer case reveals flaws in Canadian justice system
A child is born to a Prairie farm couple. It is obvious that she has many problems, but when she stops breathing, the Doctor resuscitates her — twice. At first she seems much like a normal baby — the cerebral palsy is not too evident. There are pictures of her, smiling, mostly on her father’s knee — later cuddled with her siblings. She is much beloved.
But as the years pass, there are unhappy changes. She will never be mentally older than a four-month-old baby; therefore much care is required — and lovingly given. There are numerous operations as her body grows. All these cause great pain, but the doctor prescribes only Tylenol — he says more would send her into a coma. (If there is anyone to blame in this sorry affair, I think it would be the doctor.)
The family pictures change too. She is still cradled in her father’s arms, but the little face is strained; the father’s becomes increasingly sad — despairing. Imagine a four month old being subjected to what seems like torture — and apparently by those she recognizes and loves. At one point they give in to urging and try putting her in an institution — but she cries so hard, they are told, they bring her home again.
The neighbour who comes in to help is near tears all the time. “They cared so much,” she said later. It was all “Tracy, Tracy, Tracy. They hardly had time for their other children. It was almost unbearable to watch. ” Meanwhile, the parents were taking turns lying with her at night, turning her often, trying to make her cease the endless, pitiful crying. Trying their best to make her a little more comfortable.
Finally they are told that the little girl — now a lengthy pre-teenager in body — must have yet one more operation. It is proposed to sever one leg from her body. It will still be there, but not attached. The mother cannot contain her tears. “They are going to mutilate my little girl!” she sobs.
We know the rest of the story. Robert Latimer chose a time when the family was at church, then attached the hose. He wanted a painless death for his beloved daughter.
He laid the little body in her bed. But he could not lie to the police.
I can still see the headlines: “This is not open season on the disabled!” they screamed. And then one disabled citizens’ group made itself heard. Latimer was a cruel and heartless murderer. The headlines spread across Canada. Lies were told — I remember one story. Tracy was said to be in school, and loved an outing to the zoo. And so on.
Of course we all know of handicapped people — some severely so — who have led successful, admirable lives. But what did the future hold for Tracy? Nowadays doctors could have done more, no doubt. This was an isolated doctor, treating isolated farm-people. He must have watched Tracy’s agony over the years. He could have gently relieved her suffering. But there’s that Oath doctors must take.
The small group of disabled people stacked that trial. Did the judge have any understanding? Latimer went to jail — where he continued to run his farm, from a distance. And he never wavered.
He believed — still believes — what he did was right, for Tracy. Meanwhile a farm wife lived without a husband; children growing up without a father. And he has repeatedly been denied parole — because he still could not lie — could not fake remorse.
Killers are given incredibly short sentences — daily, it seems. Yet this man, who is no threat to anyone, has forfeited his life. And few in Canada care.
The case has haunted me all these years. But we gave up striving to free him years ago.
Our justice system is often cruelly warped. Never more so than in the Latimer case.