REPORT NEWSMAGAZINE September 24, 2001 Issue Full Text
|Latimer's lethal legacy|
His sympathetic publicity has resulted in an additional 120 child murders
by Shafer ParkerADVOCATES for Saskatchewan farmer Robert Latimer, convicted of second-degree murder for killing his 12-year-old daughter Tracy Latimer in 1993, are determined to get him out of jail. "Ten years without parole constitutes a tremendous injustice," says retired engineer Paul Zollmann, of Pakenham, Ont., who since this past January has, in his own words, "devoted his days" to freeing the imprisoned man. Mr. Zollmann believes Latimer killed his daughter, who was born with cerebral palsy, to end what he considered to be her inordinate suffering. In fact, although it was almost entirely ignored by the mainstream press, testimony at Latimer's trial convinced two separate juries that he had grossly exaggerated the pain his daughter actually endured.
Now Dick Sobsey, director of the JP Das Developmental Disabilities Centre at
the University of Alberta, presents evidence that Latimer's widely publicized
self-justification has contributed to an upsurge in copycat killings unique to
Canada. In the fall issue of the journal Health Ethics Today, Professor
Sobsey suggests that starting in 1994, the year of Latimer's first trial,
roughly 20 more children found their parents going over the brink each year.
"Latimer's lionization sends the message that killing a child is
okay," he says.
To connect Canada's rising filicide rate with Latimer, Prof. Sobsey uses
social learning theory, which posits that when aggression is modelled, its
influence will be heightened if the model's behaviour is endorsed by the public.
In his words, "The widespread social perception that 'altruistic homicides'
like the killing of Tracy Latimer are the acts of heroic and loving parents who
deserve praise... should be expected to encourage more parents to kill their
children." Prof. Sobsey predicted that Latimer's favourable publicity would
|One or more copycat homicides.|
|An increase in children killed by their parents relative to the national
|An increase in children killed by fathers and stepfathers relative to the
number killed by mothers and stepmothers.|
His suspicions were born out. Less than two weeks after Latimer's first trial
in November 1994, Ontario mom Cathy Wilkieson killed herself and her 16-year-old
disabled son by filling her car with carbon monoxide, a method the same as
Latimer's. A friend testified that after reading about Latimer, Wilkieson had
begun talking about killing her son.
Moreover, despite Canada's overall homicide rate reaching a 30-year low as
the 20th century ended, the number of parents who killed their children
increased significantly. Prof. Sobsey cites a report published last year by
Orest Fedorowycz for the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, which shows
that between 1994 and 1998 the number of children under the age of 12 murdered
by their parents increased by 45%, fully 7.1% of all homicides. Comparatively,
from 1974 to 1983, the average was only 4.9% of all homicides and had declined
between 1983 and 1993.
Mr. Fedorowycz's own commentary is quite telling. He notes that,
historically, more mothers than fathers have been accused of taking the lives of
their young children. But the number of father-murderers leaped ahead of mothers
in 1994. They have been winning the grisly filicide sweepstakes ever since.
"The actual number of accused parents in 1999 included 16 fathers (13
biological fathers and 3 stepfathers) and seven biological mothers (the lowest
number of [mothers] since 1980)," Mr. Fedorowycz points out, "a ratio
of 2.3 fathers for every one mother."
Slightly different figures provided by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police show
an average of 31.75 children killed by their parents each year between 1990 and
1993. But from 1994 to 1998 the average number jumped to 49, with a range
between 45 and 62, a 54.3% increase in filicides during a time when the overall
homicide rate dropped 14.5%. Factoring in the smaller number of child deaths
that should have resulted had the filicide rate tracked the overall homicide
rate leads Prof. Sobsey to link at least 20 extra deaths per year to Latimer's
"According to our research," says Prof. Sobsey, "1997 featured
the greatest number of articles supportive of Latimer. That's also the year when
the largest number of filicides took place in Canada." By way of contrast,
he points out that in the U.S., where the Latimer story has received little
publicity, the filicide rate has tracked the overall homicide rate, which, like
Canada's, fell steadily during the 1990s.
Jamie Bassett, co-founder of the Saskatoon-based Friends of Robert Latimer,
remains unimpressed. "Sobsey's samples are too small to be statistically
meaningful," he says. "Latimer was just helping somebody he loved.
When you consider how she was constantly screaming in pain, anyone would say,
'My God, I have to do something.'"
"It's a bad sign that so many Canadians think like Bassett [73% in a
1999 Angus-Reid poll]," Mr. Sobsey replies. "We could end up in a
world of pure utilitarianism."
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