January 22, 2001
To judge from letters to the editor, on-line discussion groups and opinion polls, the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision to uphold a 10-year minimum sentence for Robert Latimer was either a miscarriage of justice or a just punishment.
Driving the impassioned debate are those who say the severely disabled have the same right to exist as the able-bodied, and those who believe that Latimer is not a criminal because he acted out of compassion, not malice, for his 12-year-old daughter Tracy.
In fact, both positions are correct; that is, they are complimentary, not mutually exclusive. One speaks to the law; the other to justice, which as we all know is not the same thing. I argue that these positions can be reconciled.
First, let’s address the Supreme Court’s decision. It found that Latimer, whatever his motives, had no right to take his daughter’s life. True, Tracy Latimer was severely disabled and in great pain, but the Court stated that Robert Latimer had an obligation to minimize her pain and keep her alive. Accordingly, the Court held that the 10-year minimum sentence was warranted.
The Court’s decision, however, heartwrenching, was correct. The law must protect all citizens equally, and if we allow our feelings to short circuit our reason, then the law becomes capricious and arbitrary. A minimum sentence is meant to ensure that those who commit murder do not cheat the system, and clearly Latimer did commit murder.
This is the point that legalistic moralists and advocates of the disabled were making. If the Court did not support the minimum sentence, it could by default seem to say that disabled people could be killed without serious consequence, and that would lead to the unsavoury issues of eugenics and involuntary euthanasia.
The law, through the Court, spoke clearly, but now the Minister of Justice should exercise his prerogative to override the court’s decision to sentence Latimer to a lesser term. To this, nobody should object. The law has already spoken, so Latimer wouldn’t be setting a precedent by “getting away with murder.” Latimer has been found guilty, but the law is not designed to deal with matters like this, and so the minister must step in to do what the Court cannot do.
Nobody doubts that Latimer killed his daughter out of compassion. He knew that further operations would make Tracy’s pain worse. So far as he was concerned, the operations would only prolonged her suffering.
Should Latimer spend 10 years in prison for committing an act of kindness, even if the law doesn’t see it that way? To put the matter in perspective, Karla Homolka was sentenced to only seven years for her part in the rape, torture and murder of Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy.
Ministerial clemency is designed for occasions such as this: when the law commits an injustice by doing right.