One of Our Children is Dead

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by Cheryl M. Eckstein

On November 16, 1994 Robert Latimer was convicted of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without eligibility for parole for ten years. He was sentenced to life for killing his twelve-year old daughter. His lawyer, Mark Brayford, immediately filed for appeal. Since his conviction, Latimer has spent only one day in jail pending appeals. Brayford argues that the RCMP obtained Latimer's confession without adequately informing him of his rights.

On July 18, 1995, three Appeal Court judges unanimously agreed Latimer was properly convicted of second degree murder. On October 25, 1995, the Justice Department recommended a new trial for Robert Latimer. The current appeal also argues that Latimer's trial was not heard by an impartial jury because the RCMP interviewed prospective jurors about their opinions on religion, mercy killing and abortion. Latimer remains out on bail pending the outcome of the November 27, 1996 Supreme Court of Canada hearing. [For an update of the Supreme Court Decision, see:R] Also, Commentary on Decision:  CENTRE FOR CULTURAL RENEWAL: LEX VIEW:LINKS TO OTHER WEB SITES

On October 24, 1993, Tracy Latimer was lifted up from her warm bed and carried out into the crisp autumn air and placed into the front seat of her father's truck. 

After her father propped her up with some filthy old rags he had taken from his storage shed, he closed the doors. 

What once was a vehicle that took her to school and camping, was now temporarily refurbished as a gas chamber.

So it happened that while her mother and siblings were sitting in pews at a church service, Robert Latimer sat in the back of his truck and watched his daughter being poisoned with carbon monoxide for at least thirty minutes. He carried her corpse to the farm house and placed her back in bed. Later, Laura Latimer returned home and made lunch, she went to her daughter's room and found Tracy dead.

In November, 1994, Latimer received a life sentence with no chance of parole for 10 years. He appealed. On November 27, 1996, the Supreme Court of Canada heard Robert Latimer's appeal for a new trial.

This latest news has reopened unhealed wounds.

The murder of healthy children always evokes nation-wide outrage. When a parent kills their own child we are grieved and shocked by the heinous crime, feeling everything but sympathy for the murderer. On October 25, 1994, three year old Michael Smith and his fourteen month old brother Alexander, were drowned by their mother. It was reported as the "unthinkable crime" and that "a town and a nation reel[ed] in anguish". When Susan was arrested, angry and tearful mobs gathered outside the courtroom. Thirteen months later, Susan received a life sentence with no chance of parole until 2024. Many, including the children's father, had hoped for the death penalty.

However, since Robert Latimer was convicted, he has spent only one day in jail. Incredibly, he has also received large sums of financial support from strangers to help him pay his legal costs. At each step of the way, Robert Latimer is featured as a loving father who appraised Tracy as being better off dead.

Why?

Because Tracy was disabled with cerebral palsy.

Robert Latimer's reaction to the Supreme Court hearing was simply, "We've always known we've done what was best for her, regardless of what or who says differently."(1) In fact, since his confession of murder, he has maintained that he did "nothing wrong".

Imagine for a moment, instead of this lead line appearing in the news, "Robert Latimer, the Saskatchewan father, is seeking to have the second-degree murder conviction he received for killing his severely disabled daughter quashed", the following emerged instead: "A Canadian father is seeking to have the second-degree murder conviction he received for killing his genius daughter, who was a concert violinist, quashed." It doesn't take a lot of thinking to imagine how many groups of citizens would spring into action and demand justice for the child.

Robert Latimer has gained sympathetic support from some Canadians only because Tracy Latimer is consistently tagged as being severely disabled. Such sympathy sparked Reuter journalist Mark MacKinnon to spotlight Robert Latimer as "a lightning rod in the mercy-killing debate in Canada."(2) Instead of outrage, an epidemic of bigotry has surfaced.

Misinformation about Tracy, unfortunately, prevails. Transcripts from the trial verify that Tracy Lynn Latimer was not in a "terminal" condition and that she was denied her right to have surgery and proper pain relieving medication by her own father. A permanent replacement home was available for Tracy, but her father denied her that option as well.

According to the court transcripts, Latimer had considered overdosing her with Valium and burning her body. By his act, he deprived this child of life, laughter and love. Tracy Latimer deserves and has every right, as all human beings do, to justice, albeit, post mortem. Tracy's death was ruled a homicide.

But if Tracy's death is not treated as a homicide, because she was severely disabled, why should the murder of any other child be treated as a homicide?

If society accepts the father's motive as ‘loving' - killing her to spare her suffering and pain, why then should not other children, arbitrarily, be likewise spared from suffering unto natural death?

Tracy Latimer seems to be the one on trial, based on her degree of disability. Exempting Robert Latimer from the punishment due him for the act of homicide, based on pseudo compassion, will rob Tracy of justice. But before she can be robbed of her right to justice, she must be arbitrarily stripped of equality and value, and thus sub-humanized.

For example, the media has made a fine case of her inability to ever toilet independent of parental or caregiver assistance. Tracy is consistently depicted as hopelessly flawed, and hopelessly ill:

The youngster suffered from severe cerebral palsy caused by brain damage at birth and was quadriplegic, unable to speak, feed herself or recognize her own name.(2)

Tracy ... could not walk, speak or feed herself. Her only forms of communication were laughing, smiling and crying. (3)

Justice for Tracy looks bleak.

The courts have consistently excused parents who have murdered children with disabilities. A woman in Wisconsin escaped sentencing after admittedly starving her son with cerebral palsy to death. She said she was responding to family pressure and the message of a TV show on euthanasia. A west coast mother recently killed her brain injured non-verbal teenage daughter. The judge said her actions were understandable, that other parents could be expected to react in the same way. He sentenced her to community service.(4)

Whether parents, medical profession, or medicine fail to relieve pain and suffering, does not justify killing the child.

Not everyone is swayed by lies and bigotry couched in endearing terms such as ‘mercy' and ‘compassion', certainly not 11-year-old Teague Johnson. Teague wrote a letter to the Vancouver Sun expressing his horror over the death of Tracy. Teague said he also has "really severe cerebral palsy" and that the Latimer case "has caused me a great deal of unhappiness and worry...."

Comprehending his purpose in life so perfectly, Teague passionately described his sentiments, saying:

I have to fight pain all the time. When I was little, life was pain; I couldn't remember no-pain. My foster Mom Cara helped me learn to manage and control my pain. Now my life is so full of joy. There isn't time enough in the day for me to learn and experience all I wish to. I have a family and friends who love me. I have a world of knowledge to discover. I have so much to give.

I can't walk or talk or feed myself, but I am not "suffering from cerebral palsy." I use a wheelchair, but I am not "confined to a wheelchair." I have pain, but I do not need to be "put out of my misery." My body is not my enemy. It is that which allows me to enjoy Mozart, experience Shakespeare, savour a bouillabaisse feast and cuddle my Mom.

Life is a precious gift. It belongs to the person to whom it was given. Not to her parents, nor to the state. Tracy's life was hers "to make of it what she could." My life is going to be astounding. Teague Johnson, North Vancouver. [‘My body is not my enemy', Vancouver Sun, Dec. 9, 1994: A1]

Teague recognized that life is a splendid gift of undiminished and inestimable value, and that dignity is an invisible possession; all of which, as Teague so poignantly illuminates, "belongs to the person to whom it was given."

ENDNOTES

1. Transcript from: CBC-TV THE NATIONAL (News) Date: 96/11/27, Time: 22:23:00 ET.

2. Retrial likely in Canadian ‘mercy-killing' case, by Mark MacKinnon, Ottawa, Nov 27, 1996 2:25 PM (Reuter).

Regarding the retrial, pro-euthanasia activist, Marilynne Seguin, executive director of Dying with Dignity, told MacKinnon that "another trial would only serve to ‘muddy the waters.'"

The only fair, just decision that can be made at this point is to drop the proceedings and let everyone get on with their lives....[Retrial likely ... by Mark MacKinnon....]

3. The Edmonton Journal, November 28, 1996

4. The Toronto Star, November 28, 1996. Such attitudes towards people with disabilities remind me of pro - euthanasia rhetoric used to describe Sue Rodriguez in her appeal to physician assisted suicide since being diagnosed with ALS:

"She ... will become a helpless, drooling, physically atrophied captive of this disease, dependent on other people and machines for an ever attenuated form of mere biological existence." John Hofsess, Globe and Mail, September 19, 1992: D1

5. Testimony Before The Constitution Subcommittee Of The Judiciary Committee Of The US House Of Representatives, April 29, 1996, Diane Coleman, J.D., MBA, Executive Director Progress Center For Independent Living, 320 Lake Street, Oak Park, Illinois 60302. (708) 986-0779

Cheryl Eckstein is the founder and president of the Compassionate Healthcare Network (CHN), an international non profit anti-euthanasia organization. She is the research consultant for CHN and the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition British Colombia (EPCBC). CHN's work includes providing educational material on euthanasia, assisted suicide, suicide and palliative care to members of parliament, senators, students of all ages, physicians, nurses, disability rights advocates, lawyers, teachers, healthcare providers, and the public at large, on an international basis. Mrs. Eckstein also lectures and does workshops across Canada and internationally.

Mailing address:
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CHN wishes to thank Ability Network Magazine for the permission to reprint
this article.
This article is from Ability Network Magazine: Volume 5 Number 2 - Winter
1996/97.
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