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Robert Latimer: A Story of Justice and Mercy

by Gary Bauslaugh

Saskatchewan wheat farmer Robert Latimer, the man at the centre of Canada’s most contentious euthanasia trial, is given an extremely sympathetic treatment in this new study. A passionate advocate for more permissive end-of-life legislation, author Gary Bauslaugh frequently allows editorializing to undermine his account of Latimer’s actions and their arduous judicial aftermath. Still, the book serves as a potent character study of a caring and unrepentant parent, while also untangling the complexities of Latimer’s experience and raising thoughtful questions about the role of juries charged with deciding controversial issues.

At birth, Latimer’s daughter, Tracy, suffered severe brain damage at birth due to oxygen deprivation. As a result, she never exceeded the mental capacity of a four-month-old and required dangerously toxic levels of medication to prevent non-stop seizures. The child endured near-constant pain and progressive damage to her limbs, back, and brain that necessitated ongoing, intensive surgical interventions. After 12 years of this, Robert Latimer placed Tracy in the back of his blue GMC truck, connected one end of a length of hose to the exhaust pipe and placed the other into the vehicle’s window, and started it up.

Bauslaugh, who covered the case for the magazine Humanist Perspectives, had extensive access to his subject, visiting Latimer in prison and in the run-up to his trial, and attending his first unsuccessful bid for parole (Latimer has since been granted day parole). In straightforward prose, Bauslaugh characterizes Latimer as a simple man distrustful of legal authorities but honest to a fault, a deeply private person uncomfortably thrust into the public spotlight.

Latimer’s case reached the Supreme Court, and Bauslaugh analyzes each agonizing step of the legal sojourn. He argues that justice was denied because the jury was misled about the possibility of “nullification” – the controversial practice of returning a not-guilty verdict on a technically guilty party to protest a law or its unjust application. (This occurred in the infamous trials of abortion doctor Henry Morgentaler.)

Though public opinion is firmly on Bauslaugh’s side, his case weakens when assessing Latimer’s critics (primarily disability advocates and religious objectors) whom he dismisses as merely irrational or manipulative. And when he ends the book by indulging in a six-page imaginary rewrite of the speech Latimer’s defence lawyer should have been allowed to deliver, the reader’s patience is put on trial.