REPORT NEWSMAGAZINE September 24, 2001 Issue Full Text

bulletLatimer's lethal legacy

bullet
His sympathetic publicity has resulted in an additional 120 child murders

by Shafer Parker

ADVOCATES 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 lead to:

bulletOne or more copycat homicides.
bulletAn increase in children killed by their parents relative to the national homicide rate.
bulletAn 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 influence.

"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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