When Robert Latimer was charged in 1993 with the murder of his chronically ill daughter, Tracy, it sparked a national debate that still simmers about euthanasia and the rights of disabled people.
This week, Quebec launched special hearings to canvass citizens about end-of-life issues including euthanasia and assisted suicide. Polls already show that 70 per cent of Quebeckers and a majority of the province's doctors support the decriminalization of euthanasia, reflecting a shift in attitudes on an issue that will continue to divide Canadians as the population ages.
Mr. Latimer, for his part, is still serving a life sentence. In a recent ruling, the National Parole Board said he could spend five days a week away from a halfway house in Victoria where he has been living for two years, studying to be an electrician. His wife, Laura, continues to live on the family farm in the small town of Wilkie, Sask., with the youngest of their three grown, surviving children.
Mr. Latimer is notoriously publicity-shy, but over several years granted a series of in-depth interviews to journalist Gary Bauslaugh, whose book Robert Latimer, A Story of Justice and Mercy will be published next month.
Mr. Bauslaugh argues that Mr. Latimer was the victim of a flawed legal system ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of Canada's most famous case of mercy killing, and that all these years later those flaws still remain.
What are you presenting that's really new? This story's been around for nearly 20 years.
It's the complete story. There have been many articles written about different aspects of the story, but I thought it was important to paint a complete picture of how the legal system failed Robert Latimer.
It's a real indictment of the Canadian legal system.
It's a hard case. It doesn't fit in the system easily, but it serves a purpose of exposing weaknesses in the justice system.
Is what you're saying that the law shouldn't apply equally to everyone?
No, I'm not arguing that. In most similar cases in Canadian history involving compassionate homicide, people have been charged with manslaughter and been given suspended sentences. The problem for Latimer was an aggressive prosecutor who charged him with murder, with a minimum sentence of 10 years.
So you blame the prosecutor? Isn't it a prosecutor's job to be aggressive?
No, a prosecutor's job is to seek justice and seek fairness. It's not to win the case. Often you'll find prosecutors trying to make a name for themselves. It's not their job. Their job is seeking justice. That doesn't always happen in practice. A majority of people support Latimer. He's consistently had 70 to 80 per cent sympathy of the Canadian people.
Isn't it important to have a justice system that's not swayed by public opinion, which is fickle?
The justice system should be fair and reasonable, but the fact is we should have more liberal laws on assisted suicide and euthanasia. We don't have the laws in place that most people want. That's wrong. The laws should reflect public opinion.
Tell me about your time with Mr. Latimer.
I went to prison and met with him. He's very affable, relaxed. He is bitter about the way he's been treated by the justice system, but he doesn't normally show that. I think he's a very kind person and it seems quite clear that what he did was an act of compassion, not an act of malice.
Are you his friend?
Yes, it became a friendship. The more I learned about his case, the more I became concerned that he wasn't being treated fairly. I went to his parole hearing and was really stunned by how they treated him. They seemed to want him to be rehabilitated, and protect the public from him when the Supreme Court had already said there was no need for that. The parole board treated him as a dangerous criminal and continues to do so today.
I'm interested in how you wrote the book, as a friend or a journalist? Was there a conflict there?