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
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
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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