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Father’s Act Merciful Or Murder? Killing Of Disabled Daughter Has Resulted In Two Trials For Wheat Farmer, Divided Canadians

Robert Latimer admits that he killed his 12-year-old daughter, Tracy, in 1993 by putting her in his pickup truck and leaving the engine running until the cab was filled with carbon monoxide and Tracy was dead.

Canadian juries have twice convicted the 44-year-old Saskatchewan wheat farmer of second-degree murder.

The first conviction was overturned on a legal technicality three years ago, and after the second trial ended early this month, jurors made clear that they had convicted him reluctantly. They believed that Latimer had killed Tracy, but that he had done so to keep her from suffering the fearsome pain of the advanced cerebral palsy that twisted her body and kept her in agony.

They did not set Latimer free. But neither did they want him to receive the mandatory sentence of 25 years in prison, with no chance of parole for 10 years, that goes with a second-degree murder conviction.

During deliberations, jurors asked the judge about sentencing, but Canadian law requires juries to take into account only the facts presented in the courtroom.

So the jurors found Latimer guilty of second-degree murder but took the unusual step of recommending that the mandatory sentence be ignored. Instead, they proposed a one-year sentence.

The judge, Ted Noble, is scheduled to decide Latimer’s fate today.

While there does not seem to be much legal room for compromise, the case has opened a wide and emotionally wrenching rift in Canada over so-called mercy killing and the rights of the handicapped.

Latimer’s lawyer has argued that the mandatory sentence would be cruel, and thus unconstitutional. One juror has said she cannot sleep thinking about the severity of the sentence that Latimer, a father of three, might receive.

“If I hear that he gets 10 years, I’m going to feel horrible,” Carolyn Huber told The Canadian Press news agency.

In the Canadian west, where the Latimer family’s 1,280 acres produce wheat and canola, people who know the family say the law is simply too rigid.

“Bob Latimer is not a murderer, and he is no threat to society,” said Howard L. Wallace, a farmer in Wilkie, Saskatchewan, who is the Latimers’ closest neighbor. “It’s a shame to take him away from his family and lock him up.”

But handicapped people and the organizations representing them say that anything less than a stiff sentence would send a message that the lives of severely disabled people are worth less than the lives of everyone else.

“If you can make your own choice, that’s a different thing, but if someone makes it for you, that’s murder,” said Ron Bort, provincial president of Saskatoon Voice of People With Disabilities. “For someone else to decide your life is not worth living, that’s the scary part.”

Bort, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, is concerned because of the way people across Canada seem to be rallying around Latimer.

“I don’t understand why there’s so much support for this man, other than the fact that it’s a large family,” he said. Bort says the decision to end Tracy’s life was not Latimer’s to make.

“My quality of life with MS may be different from a non-disabled person’s, but nobody has the right to decide my life is worth less than yours,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”

While Latimer and his wife, Laura, testified about their daughter’s agony and her apparent loss of interest in life, they did not say she had asked them to kill her.

For Diane Richler, executive vice president of the Canadian Association for Community Living, an advocacy group for people with disabilities, the facts of the case could not be clearer.

“Tracy Latimer did not choose to die,” she said. “She was murdered, and justice should be served.”

The day after he was convicted by a jury of seven women and five men, Latimer told reporters that he felt he had had no choice.

“People are saying this is a handicap issue, but they’re wrong,” Latimer said. “This was a torture issue. It was about mutilation and torture for Tracy. She had bedsores, she was in pain all the time and wasn’t eating well.”

During the trial, Mrs. Latimer said surgery performed on Tracy a year before she died had turned her from “a happy little girl” into a victim of constant agony.

Prosecutors originally charged Latimer with first-degree murder. In the other cases, prosecutors usually settled on lesser charges of manslaughter or administering a toxic substance.

In four recent cases, those convicted served no time in prison.

The Canadian Senate debated the issue in 1995 and recommended that a third category of homicide be placed in the criminal code to cover such killings. But the law was never changed.

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