Robert Latimer: A Story of Justice and Mercy
By Gary Bauslaugh
Toronto, Ontario: James Lorimer & Company, 2010
On October 24, 1993, Robert Latimer ended the life of his 12 year old daughter, Tracy, while his wife and three other children attended church. He admitted to police that he placed Tracy in the cab of his truck and vented in exhaust fumes. Convicted for second degree murder, he received a life sentence with no parole eligibility for 10 years. The trial judge characterized Latimer as a loving and caring father and a 2001 Ipsos-Reid poll said 73% of Canadians believed Latimer deserved a more lenient sentence. Still, no quarter of mercy was given to Latimer, even after the Supreme Court of Canada reminded Parliament that it could exercise the Royal Prerogative of Mercy and grant clemency.
Gary Bauslaugh’s Robert Latimer: A Story of Justice and Mercy (2010) recounts an extraordinary sequence of tragedies that began when Tracy was born clinically dead and then revived. This is no Lazarus tale. Tracy lived 12 years totally dependent on others and had the mental age of an infant. Severe cerebral palsy caused constant muscle spasms, curling her hands, legs, and spine. These afflictions were treated through surgeries to extend or severe tendons in her toes and knees and hands. By August 1992, Tracy’s back was bent at a 73 degree angle, so steel rods were implanted along her spine, rendering her permanently straight and stiff. It was a surgical success, but her parents and doctor said that Tracy was never the same and she appeared to be in constant pain. When Tracy’s right hip became permanently dislocated, surgeons proposed removal of part of her hip and thigh bone, creating a “flail joint.” Latimer decided that his daughter had suffered enough.
Gary Bauslaugh is a former president of the Humanist Association of Canada and past editor of Humanist Perspectives. While he is naturally conflicted by Latimer’s decision to end his daughter’s life, Bauslaugh declares Robert Latimer a hero. After all, Latimer is a compassionate father who reacted to the prospect of a life sentence with “I can lie in a dirty old jail cell easier than Tracy can lie on the floor.”
This book does not betray Latimer’s reputation as a “salt of the earth.” Bauslaugh is one of few Canadians to gain access to Robert and several family members, yet Latimer was a reluctant and suspicious participant, telling Bauslaugh that he was not interested in the book. “Too intrusive” is Latimer’s typically concise reply when a frustrated Bauslaugh appeals for cooperation from his hero.
Non-cooperation aside, Robert Latimer: A Story of Justice and Mercy is compelling reading because it diligently documents Latimer’s epic journey through the criminal justice system, from trial, to appeal, to the Supreme Court of Canada, and then a second trial, appeal, and again to the Supreme Court of Canada. Problems with our trusted justice officials are exposed, such as the Crown Prosecutor who tampered with the jury pool for Latimer’s first trial, causing the Supreme Court of Canada to allow a re-trial. The prosecutor was acquitted, but later terminated by a Cabinet Order in Council.
Another disappointment was the National Parole Board decision to deny Latimer parole after he served the mandatory minimum 10 years in prison. The appeal by civil libertarian and lawyer, Jason Gratl, was a “slam dunk” because the Parole Board acted for moral and personal reasons, with no legal grounds to require Latimer’s continued imprisonment. None of this seems proper, especially when we are reminded that Karla Homolka walked free after serving 12 years for two brutal murders.
If comparison to Homolka seems too remote, then consider the 1941 murder trial of Dorothy and Victor Ramberg in Keoma, Alberta. Bauslaugh does not mention the Ramberg case, but like Latimer, they used car exhaust to end the life of their two year old son who was in severe pain and terminally ill. But, that was a time when it was permissible to inform juries that they could ignore the law and acquit a guilty party. The Ramberg’s lawyer did exactly that and it took only 10 minutes for the jury to find the Rambergs “not guilty” of murder. The mercy of jury nullification did not exist for Latimer.
Bauslaugh laments the injustice that juries can no longer be informed of their right to jury nullification and he condemns the cruelty of mandatory minimum sentences, such as the one imposed on Latimer. For decades sentencing commissions have recommended the abolition of minimum sentences, yet Canada’s Parliament is trending to more of them.
Latimer’s trials and tribulations illustrate how the Canadian criminal justice system contributed to the (mal)administration of “justice” against a merciful father. Gary Bauslaugh has written an instructive book for those who are concerned about “justice” and for the majority of Canadians who believe that Robert Latimer got a raw deal.
|Russel D. Ogden
New Westminster, BC