Supreme Court Decides Against Robert Latimer

(18 January 2001) — The Supreme Court portrayed Tracy in a balanced manner. It stated, "T[racy] was quadriplegic and her physical condition rendered her immobile." It also noted that, "Tracy enjoyed music, bonfires, being with her family and the circus. Tracy could apparently recognized family members and she would express joy at seeing them. Tracy also loved being gently rocked by them."

In its decision in the Latimer case, the Supreme Court of Canada summarized the questions in Latimer's appeal in the following manner: "This appeal deals with three questions of law arising from his trial. First, did the trial judge mishandle the defense of necessity, resulting in an unfair trial. Second, was the trial unfair because the trial judge misled the jury into believing that they would have some input into the appropriate sentence? Third does the imposition of the mandatory minimum sentence for second degree murder constitute "cruel and unusual punishment' in this case, so that Mr. Latimer ('the appellant') should receive a constitutional exemption from the minimum sentence?"

In the second paragraph of its decision, the Supreme Court provided the following succinct answer to these questions. It states, "We conclude that the answer to all three questions is no." The Court then goes on to explain its decision. Some highlights of the Court's explanation follow:

The Court made the point that, "His care of his daughter for many years was admirable. His decision to end his daughter's life was an error in judgment. The taking of another life represents the most serious crime in our criminal law."

With respect to the defense of necessity, the Supreme Court stated, "The defense of necessity is narrow and of limited application in criminal law. In this case, there was no air of reality to that defense."

The Court explained that, "Tracy's proposed surgery did not pose an imminent threat to her life, nor did her medical condition. In fact, Tracy's health might have improved had the Latimers not rejected the option of a feeding tube. Tracy's situation was not an emergency. The appellant can be reasonably expected to have understood that reality. There was no evidence of a legitimate psychological condition that rendered him unable to perceive that there was no imminent peril. The appellant argued that, for him, further surgery did amount to imminent peril. It was not reasonable for the appellant to form this belief, particularly when better pain management was available."

The Court went on to state that, "The harm inflicted in this case was ending a life; that harm was immeasurably more serious than the pain resulting from Tracy's operation which Mr. Latimer sought to avoid. Killing a person—in order to relieve the suffering produced by a medically manageable physical or mental condition—is not a proportionate response to the harm represented by the non-life-threatening suffering resulting from that condition....In considering the defense of necessity, we must remain aware of the need to respect the life, dignity and equality of all the individuals affected by the act in question."

The Court rejected Latimer's arguments with regard to the timing of the trial Judge's decision on the necessity defense. They stated, "In most cases, the trial judge will be able to rule on the availability of a defense before counsel begin their closing addresses. But that does not mean that the trial is unfair where the trial judge delays his ruling. In the circumstances of this case, we conclude that the fairness of the trial was not affected."

On the matter of cruel and unusual punishment and a constitutional exemption, the Court stated, "Finally, this sentence is consistent with a number of valid penological goals and sentencing principles. ...[T]he mandatory minimum sentence plays an important role in denouncing murder. Since there is no violation of the accused's s.12 right, there is no basis for granting a constitutional exemption."

The Supreme Court stated, "On the one hand, we must give due consideration to Mr. Latimer's initial attempts to conceal his actions, his lack of remorse, his position of trust, the significant degree of planning and premeditation, and Tracy's extreme vulnerability. On the other hand, we are mindful of Mr. Latimer's good character and standing in the community, his tortured anxiety about Tracy's well -being, and his laudable perseverance as a caring and involved parent. Considered together we cannot find that the personal characteristics and particular circumstances of this case displace the serious gravity of this case." The Court went on to state that, "...we are mindful of the important role that the mandatory minimum sentence plays in denouncing murder. Denunciation of unlawful conduct is one of the objectives recognized in s. 718 of the Criminal Code. As noted by the Court...: "The objective of denunciation mandates that a sentence should communicate society's condemnation of that particular offender's conduct. In short, a sentence with a denunciatory element represents a symbolic, collective statement that the offender's conduct should be punished for encroaching on our society's basic code of values as enshrined within our substantive criminal law."

The Court continued, "Furthermore denunciation becomes much more important in cases where there is a 'high degree of planning and premeditation, and where the offense and its consequences are highly publicized, [so that] like minded individuals may well be deterred by severe sentences.' This is particularly so where the victim is a vulnerable person with respect to age, disability, or other similar factors. In summary, the minimum mandatory sentence is not grossly disproportionate in this case. We cannot find that any aspect of the particular circumstances of the case or the offender diminishes the degree of responsibility borne by Mr. Latimer."