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Mercy-killing debate is back with a vengeance

GEOFF HOWE/Geoff Howe/CP

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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

A little bit. I changed from being an unbiased reporter to somebody who became quite convinced he'd been dealt a bad hand, and I became an advocate for his case. I'm not arguing he should have done what he did. It was probably an unwise thing for him to do, but he certainly has been treated badly by the justice system in a way that has been disproportionate to similar cases.

You directly intervene for him. you help him find a job as an electrician. you put him in touch with the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association to help him appeal the parole board's decision. Doesn't that affect the integrity of your book?

Latimer was involved in reviewing the text early on, but he stepped away from that. He didn't want a book written about him and so subsequently he wasn't involved in the current manuscript. I am critical of him in some ways. I don't think it was a particularly wise thing for him to do, but I am also sympathetic because of the hand he's been dealt.

It sounds like you won his trust early on. do you feel your decision to write the book without his consent was a betrayal of that? He might say you took advantage of him.

He knew I was a reporter from the first time we met. He certainly didn't want the book done in the end, but I felt the issues were important. If people don't learn about some of these legal issues, his years of suffering will have been in vain.

Has he read the book?

An early version, which I think he was uncomfortable with because he doesn't want publicity.

Are you still friends?

He wants to keep his distance.

I was a bit confused reading the book. It was not clear to me how you really felt about what Mr. Latimer did, killing his daughter. What would you have done in his shoes?

I think that's impossible to answer. None of us know what we would do in that kind of desperate situation. I am convinced he did it for her sake. There's no question. One would like to think one would have the courage to do that in this situation. At the same time, it really hurt him and his family for many years afterwards. So you wonder whether it was really worth it.

Is this case about the value of a disabled life?

Not at all. I don't think you'd find people more compassionate toward disabled people than the Latimers. They spent 13 years of dedicated care for this poor child. They massaged food down her throat. I don't know if I would have had the strength to do that. It came to a point where it's not that she was disabled, but they felt she was in this horrible pain. That she would be better off dead.

What's the biggest misperception about the Latimers?

That if they weren't dealt with harshly, it would be open season on the disabled. That's nonsense. It wasn't Tracy's disability, it was her pain.

When you write about Laura, I get the impression that you didn't quite buy the story as it was told to you: that Robert Latimer never told his wife that he intended to kill his daughter. I didn't buy it.

We can't know this. The only people that know it for sure are Robert and Laura. I don't think she knew. I thought about that a lot. I think Robert is a very self-sufficient man. He could fix anything on the farm. I think he was aware that if he involved her, she could be prosecuted.

There is something condescending about the way you portray Robert Latimer. You argue he is an unsophisticated man when it comes to dealing with the law.

I am trying to be honest. He is a good and decent man, but not a sophisticated man.

So you think he is helpless? He did take his daughter's life into his own hands.

He's not helpless on the farm, but he is helpless in the legal system.

You blame the legal system, but he's the one who made the decision, for example, not to have a lawyer present at the time of his arrest and initial questioning. He decided not to ask for clemency. You go easy on him.

Well there's no reason why an unsophisticated, good person should be penalized unduly.

Isn't it his right to refuse a lawyer?

I would have liked the RCMP to have said, "Well, Bob, you don't want a lawyer, but we're going to get one for you anyway." That should be done as a matter of course in cases like this where the person doesn't seem to realize the importance of legal assistance.

And disrespect his wishes?

His wishes led to terrible consequences for him.

In the description of Mr. Latimer killing Tracy that you offer in the book, there didn't seem to be any real dilemma, on his part, of what he was about to do.

It was 13 years in the coming. Two weeks before she died, Laura got this message from their doctor that they would have to cut off her femur and she'd be in excruciating pain.

They went into despair. They saw it as torture and mutilation. She said she wished they could call Dr. Kevorkian, which she didn't really mean, but it planted the idea in Bob's mind and he realized, "I have got to do this."

He's always insisted, and I believe him, that he did it for Tracy.

There was no real emotional or psychological support for the Latimers after they came home from the doctors to help them deal with Tracy's illness. if there had been, would that have changed things?

If there were a law on assisted suicide and euthanasia, there would have been a place to go and talk about this. Maybe a review process wouldn't have found there was a case for euthanasia, but at least there would have been somewhere to go. As it is, there is nobody to talk to, at least not without implicating them in a crime.

Do you think your book will help Robert Latimer?

I think it will help him in the sense that it will get the truth out, but I don't know if he'll see it that way. He'll just see it as more publicity. I raise issues about jury independence and the parole boards. I hope it stimulates debate. I hope it raises awareness among juries that they don't have to strictly follow the law if they think it's unjust.

What is Robert Latimer doing today? How does he spend his days?

He's officially at a halfway house in Victoria. It's not a very nice place. It's in a rough part of town, so he's rented an apartment a few kilometres away, which he stays in most of the time. He is studying to be an electrician. The parole board wouldn't let him stay in his apartment five nights a week. He has to trudge back to the halfway house every night.

Today, is Mr. Latimer remorseful? Not over the killing of his daughter, which you say he is not, but over what he's put his family through?

I haven't seen that. He thinks that Tracy's needs were greater and he did what he had to do. It had to be done.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Sonia Verma is a reporter for The Globe and Mail.

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About the Author

Sonia Verma writes about foreign affairs for The Globe and Mail. Based in Toronto, she has recently covered economic change in Latin America, revolution in Egypt, and elections in Haiti. Before joining The Globe in 2009, she was based in the Middle East, reporting from across the region for The Times of London and New York Newsday. More

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