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Robert Latimer

A story of justice and mercy

by Gary Bauslaugh

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criminals & outlaws
list price: $14.95
also available: Hardcover
published: 2011
imprint: Lorimer
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In October 1993, Robert Latimer, a Saskatchewan farmer, decided to end the life of his chronically ill daughter rather than subject her to another painful surgery. Tracy, who had the mental capacity of a five-month-old infant, was twelve at the time of her death. She had already endured multiple operations to correct conditions caused by her severe cerebral palsy.

Tracy's death and the charge of murder laid against Robert Latimer set in motion Canada's most famous and controversial case of "mercy killing." The case sparked a national debate about euthanasia and the rights of the severely disabled that continues today.

Author Gary Bauslaugh takes us back to the beginning of this case, describes its explosion on the national scene during two highly publicized trials, and looks at later conflicts surrounding Latimer's parole hearing. In clear, insightful prose, Bauslaugh discusses the conflicting views of Latimer's sympathizers and detractors in chapters that explore the ethical dilemmas as well as the legal issues that this case has raised.

As a reporter who has followed the case from its beginnings and interviewed Latimer multiple times during his imprisonment and subsequent parole, Bauslaugh's intimate knowledge of the personalities and facts of this difficult case allow him to write a revealing and informed book.

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Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Matthew 5:7 (King James Version)

One reading of this famous passage from the Bible is that by being merciful we shall receive God's blessing and mercy in an afterlife. But the passage, in its beautiful simplicity and sentiment, has a different but equally compelling meaning for secularists.

The merciful are blessed, in a secular sense, because they enrich human life both in the way their acts of kindness help others and in the way they show us the better side of humanity. Although the merciful do not always obtain mercy directly, as this book will illustrate, they do show us the possibility of a kinder and more compassionate world..

Mercy evokes powerful human feelings. One of the most compelling scenes in theatre?the audience always gasps at this point in stage productions?occurs when the Bishop in Les Mis?rables encounters the officer who has apprehended Jean Valjean with silverware stolen from the Bishop, after the Bishop had taken in this poor man and trusted him. The Bishop, rather than denouncing the ungrateful thief, tells the officer that he gave Valjean the silverware, then adds some silver candlesticks to the gift.

In The Merchant of Venice, Portia's moving speech on the quality of mercy is one of the most quoted in all of Shakespeare:.

The quality of mercy is not strain'd.It droppeth as the gentle rain from heavenUpon the place beneath: It is twice bless'd;It blesseth him that gives and him that takes?We share a human desire to live in a world marked by kindness and compassion, even though our actual world so often seems otherwise. Perhaps that is why we treasure particular moments of human kindness; they remind us of how we would like to be, and how we would like the world to be.Ending the life of another human usually represents the opposite of the kindness and compassion we value so highly. Most such actions are correctly called murder; they are committed with malice, and they are reprehensible. But on occasion the ending of a human life is done not out of malice, but out of love and mercy. These cases are the opposite of those that are malicious; they represent courageous acts of human love and kindness. Such acts of mercy are not murder.For various reasons, some of which will be discussed in this book, our legal system in Canada fails to provide sufficient opportunity to make the critical distinction between selfless acts of mercy and cruel acts of murder. The one serves the interest of a dying person; the other is directly contrary to the interests of a living person. One serves to make a more compassionate society; the other the opposite. In a truly just society, we would try very hard not to conflate these two actions, which arise out of completely opposite motivations.In Canada, do we try very hard to make the critical distinction between murder and euthanasia? And do we have effective mechanisms for making this distinction? In 1993, Robert Latimer, a Saskatchewan farmer, ended the life of his desperately ill daughter and for the following seventeen years has been entangled in legal proceedings that included seven years of imprisonment. Convicted of second-degree murder, he will be on parole for life.There is no perfect system of justice, and there never will be. But justice systems must always seek justice; that is their purpose. Laws, and the administration of laws, must therefore be continually monitored and modified as legally sanctioned injustices become evident. The legal profession is fond of saying that "hard cases make bad laws," implying that we can't build a legal system on unusual and difficult cases. But it is at least as true to say that bad laws make hard cases. We cannot skew the legal system to account for highly unusual cases, but equally we cannot back away from changing laws when they are evidently unjust. And if existing laws lead to injustice, those administering the laws ought to seek ways of mitigating the impact of those laws. Acts of mercy are not acts of murder, whatever the laws happen to say. Bad laws, and strict adherence to those laws, make hard cases because they trap law enforcement officials into taking actions that are manifestly unfair.The prosecution of Robert Latimer was a hard case because it was widely understood that he was not a criminal; that is, he did not act with criminal intent. Even those involved in his prosecution at times acknowledged this: the Crown Prosecutor in Latimer's second trial case said, in his summation, that Latimer had been "motivated by love, and I don't dispute that for a second." It is a bad law that leads to punishing an act of love with the same severity as we punish a malicious act of murder. In this book, I discuss the Latimer case from the particular vantage point I have had in knowing the man and talking to him extensively over the past five years; from discussions with many of the people involved in his case, including his defence lawyer; from transcripts of various proceedings; from attending his momentous parole hearing in 2007; and from subsequent involvement in the consequences of that hearing. I also reflect on the ways that such cases illustrate both certain threats to our civil liberties, in the application of existing laws, and the need for new, more humane laws.Do the merciful obtain mercy? I will let you be the judge.

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Contributor notes

GARY BAUSLAUGH'S investigative writing has appeared in many publications, including The Skeptical Inquirer, The Vancouver Sun, and The Humanist. He contributed an essay on the debate about creationism versus evolution in Universities at Risk (2008). He was Editor of Humanist Perspectives for five years and has served as President of the Humanist Association of Canada. He was a teacher and an administrator in Canadian colleges and universities for many years. He lives in Duncan, BC.

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Editorial Reviews

A plea for mercy, compassion: B.C. author lines up behind Robert Latimer, calls for enlightened legislation in Canada

Seventeen years ago, a crime was committed in rural Saskatchewan that took seven years to resolve, though the perpetrator confessed.

Should the law have prevailed as it did, or should human decency have intervened and recognized criminality was being applied to a non-criminal?

Some readers will recall how farmer Robert Latimer's killing of his cerebral palsy-afflicted 12-year-old daughter in October 1993 unleashed a maelstrom of opinions.

In a partly biographical, relatively short but intensely focused polemic about this case, B.C. journalist Gary Bauslaugh invites condemnation by boldly stating: "Robert Latimer is a man who committed an act of love and mercy that few others would have had the mental strength and determination to do."

Bauslaugh, an avowed humanist, is no stranger to controversy. His views in magazines like Humanist Perspectives and Skeptical Inquirer challenge religious dogmatists and test the limits of societal change by advocating alternatives to suicide for cases of terminal or intolerable illness.

Bauslaugh focuses his crosshairs on Latimer's decision to end his daughter Tracy's life and on the rigid laws that failed to be merciful. He describes how the media frenzy and national debates transformed the faces of a father and daughter into symbols for groups advancing their own agendas.

He effectively weaves the tragic events surrounding the Latimer family into a call for enlightened legislation.

Using his intimate knowledge of the case, he discusses the roles police, lawyers and alarmists played in depicting Latimer as an unrepentant, cold-blooded killer. But he acknowledges that Latimer's stubbornness and naivet? towards the law was detrimental to his defence.

Bauslaugh is critical of the means by which supportive voices of friends and neighbours, who described Latimer as, "a friendly, soft-spoken and quiet man," were silenced by two groups: the Christian right and associations for the severely disabled.

He accuses the first group of selectively quoting biblical tenets while conveniently ignoring passages about mercy. He derides the latter for illogically suggesting that all severely disabled persons were at risk if Latimer had been shown leniency.

Concluding that the case was a mercy-killing by a loving parent, Bauslaugh does offer this caveat: "I cannot shake the feeling that he ought not to have done it."

He likely concedes that only Solomon's wisdom could have prevented that years of judicial wrangling that ended in 2001 when Latimer began serving his second-degree murder sentence.

Bauslaugh implores Canadians to recognize that several European countries and some U.S. states have enacted more permissive legislation regarding end-of-life dilemmas such as assisted suicide and euthanasia.

He argues that Latimer's long, arduous and expensive (especially for taxpayers) journey through trials, incarcerations and appeals arose from a rigid definition of murder and the judiciary's decision to prohibit the jury's right to nullify or change a court's sentencing recommendations. Bauslaugh reminds readers that jury nullification was effectively wielded during Dr. Henry Morgentaler's abortion trials in the 1970s and suggests that similarly contentious case influenced Latimer's.

After witnessing a biased panel denying Latimer parole in 2007, Bauslaugh helped persuade the B.C. Civil Liberties Association to launch an appeal that granted Latimer day parole from his B.C. prison in February 2008, albeit with conditions Bauslaugh calls "petty harassment."

Latimer currently lives in Victoria, working part-time with a local electrician, and recently had his parole conditions relaxed, allowing him to spend five nights in his apartment and two nights in a halfway house.

He will be eligible for full parole in December, having served his time for being "a desperate person who resorted to a desperate action."

People who are against the notion of mercy in our courts may want to reflect upon this the next time they request it for a routine traffic violation.


— Winnipeg Press

The prosecutorial and Parole Board vindictiveness and cruelty -- why? Of course they have a job to do, but why pursue it with such punishing vigour?

— Robert Rowan, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, The University of British Columbia

[Robert Latimer: A Story about Justice and Mercy presents a very human perspective of Latimer's plight as perceived by him, and gives the reader some feel for what it must have been like to have been in Latimer's position when faced with continued medical treatment for Tracy and the virtual certainty of the continuing deterioration in her quality of life? It also presents the readers with a fundamental question: What they would do if they were in a similar position — and how they would justify their choice? Is it worth reading? Yes - definitely.

— Eike Kluge, Professor of Applied Ethics, University of Victoria

Gary Bauslaugh offers a diligent, detailed and passionate analysis of the Robert Latimer story?He paints a fair picture of an honest man in an impossibly complex and desperate situation in which any of us could find ourselves?A timely book as our society deals with the role of religious motivations in public debates about the values of life and death.

— Justin Trottier, Executive Director, Centre for Inquiry, Canada

The author "effectively weaves the tragic events surrounding the Latimer family into a call for enlightened legislation."

— Winnipeg Free Press

A passionate indictment of a legal system that failed an honest, hardworking Prairie farmer who paid an unconscionable price for his act of love and mercy.

— William Deverell, author of Snow Job

Gary Bauslaugh has researched and written the most devastating book that I have read in many decades. He has devoted his time and talent to drawing attention to the injustices that have befallen Robert Latimer. He deserves my thanks and those of the thousands of readers who will in the near future feel as I do.

— John Robert Colombo, author & anthologist

This book promises to ensure that Canadians will not forget the unpardonable injustice inflicted by our legal system upon Robert Latimer and his family. Despite some differences over the points that Gary Bauslaugh has chosen to emphasize, I believe that we all stand to be enriched by his pithy book. It exposes pivotal defects in Canadian law, and does so with a compelling account of the human suffering involved.

— A. Alan Borovoy, General Counsel Emeritus, British Columbia Civil Liberties Association

Robert Latimer: A Story of Justice and Mercy does not pretend to be an impartial history of this emotionally charged case, but instead forcefully advocates that Latimer deserves the kind of mercy he felt he showed to his daughter.

Bauslaugh savages the Parole Board appointees who appeared to be making an example of Latimer, and also makes a convincing argument that jury nullification, though frowned upon by the Supreme Court of Canada, was an avenue that should have been open to Latimer and his legal counsel....

...Robert Latimer: A Story of Justice and Mercy, which was released earlier this month, is thought-provoking, and effectively raises issues that will have to be dealt with, once and for all, by the justice system.

Damian J. Penny is a family law practitioner with Bedford Law Inc. in Bedford, N.S.

— Damian J. Penny is a family law practitioner with Bedford Law Inc. in Bedford, N.S.

Civil liberties, in their complete sense, involve aspects of both legality and humanity. Gary Bauslaugh's book combines these two in an informative, intelligent, clearly written and nuanced way while discussing the Robert Latimer case and asking whether legality is always justice. I learned a good deal from this book -- it will make you think.

— Robert Weyant, Emeritus Professor of General Studies, The University of Calgary

Robert Latimer's retrial-by-parole-board exposed a fundamental weakness in Canada's criminal justice system that should focus more on reintegration and less on punishment. Whatever one thinks of the merits of Latimer's case he does not present a credible threat to public safety and should have been accorded the dignity of that fact.

— Craig Jones, Executive Director, The John Howard Society of Canada

An essential book by one of the closest persons to the man and his homicide. Gary Bauslaugh, whose intervention was key to Robert Latimer's parole — takes us inside the heart and mind of the accused, and chronicles the twists and turns of a justice system struggling to come to terms with the hardest of hard cases. Beautifully written into the bargain.

— John Dixon, former President, British Columbia Civil Liberties Association

"Robert Latimer's story is the ultimate antidote to the tendency to see the law in abstract terms. The supposed virtue of our legal system is its ability to temper law with justice. This book sets out clearly the many barriers to that goal- naivet? of accused, pop-psychology misconceptions, prosecutorial zeal, professional incompetence, uninformed and biased political and media pressure- among many others. Gary Bauslaugh has written a book that should be on every law school curriculum and on every politician's and justice professional's reading list. The questions he raises about end-of-life issues deserve wide debate, but at the end of the day, as the Latimer case illustrates, even if we do change our laws, we will always need to find justice for those good people who are on the wrong side of the law for the right reasons."

— Kim Campbell, former Justice Minister and Prime Minister of Canada
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About the Author

Gary Bauslaugh

GARY BAUSLAUGH'S investigative writing has appeared in many publications, including The Skeptical Inquirer, The Vancouver Sun, and The Humanist. He contributed an essay on the debate about creationism versus evolution in Universities at Risk (2008). He was Editor of Humanist Perspectives for five years and has served as President of the Humanist Association of Canada. He was a teacher and an administrator in Canadian colleges and universities for many years. He lives in Duncan, BC.
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