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March 10, 2008

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Mercy run wild

By Paul Schratz

The release of Robert Latimer is one of those events that illustrate the tension between justice and mercy, a tension that in Catholic teaching places a higher emphasis on mercy than on justice.

Yet the Latimer case strains that emphasis on mercy for several reasons, the first being that the Saskatchewan farmer remains unrepentant for what he did.

Latimer killed his disabled daughter Tracy, who was born with cerebral palsy and at the age of 12 couldn't talk or walk and had the mental ability of an infant.

Latimer was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 10 years. All along he maintained his defence of necessity, which led to his being rejected for day parole last year by the National Parole Board.

However, an appeal of that ruling last month was successful, and Latimer will soon be heading to an Ottawa halfway house after seven years in jail.

Reaction to the appeal decision typically falls on the same two intractable sides that have always followed this case since Tracy's death. Those who plead for mercy believe Latimer had no choice but to do what he did because his daughter had nothing to live for and was in constant pain.

The other side maintains Tracy's life was not for Latimer to take and that once we start deciding which people have too much pain and suffering and not enough purpose in their lives, it's only a matter of time before we have a 21st-century Holocaust on the horizon.

There's also a compelling argument that Latimer already got his mercy when he was convicted of second-degree murder. Presumably prosecutors felt they'd never get a conviction on a first-degree murder charge, even though the killing was planned and deliberate: the very definition of first-degree murder under the Criminal Code of Canada.

Instead of 25 years, he got 10. Now, after seven, he's getting out, still unrepentant, and his supporters still maintaining he got a raw deal as they fight for an overturning of his sentence.

This is mercy carried to absurd lengths, in complete disregard to the many other Tracy Latimers in this country who become more vulnerable with each development in the doctrine of mercy run wild.

Latimer's supporters argue that he poses no danger to others, but surely the threat that Latimer poses as an individual is not central issue. It isn't so much the risk that he will reoffend that should concern us so much as the danger that this decision opens the door a little bit more toward placing people with disabilities in Canada on an endangered list.

Those who favour mercy assume that Robert Latimer is the only person worthy of consideration, yet mercy, solely directed toward Latimer, necessarily entails diverting it from the disabled, whom this case leaves in a more precarious position.

Just as the deliberate killing of Terri Schiavo in the U.S. has eased public opposition to "mercy starvation," one senses that there will be broader tolerance the next time someone in Canada "mercifully ends the life" of a loved one they felt didn't have a life worth living.

In effect, decisions such as this one are helping to cement in place a new two-tier legal system: one for people who are disabled and don't benefit from the full extent of the law, and one for those who aren't.

Holding Latimer to the original sentence would have done a better job of sending the message that all Canadians' lives are worth protecting, including those of the disabled.

In the end, between justice and mercy, it's pretty clear which one is losing out.

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