R. v. Latimer

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This article is about the 2001 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada. For the 1997 decision, see R. v. Latimer (1997).
R. v. Latimer
Supreme Court of Canada
Hearing: June 14, 2000
Judgment: January 18, 2001
Full case name Robert William Latimer v. Her Majesty The Queen
Citations [2001] 1 S.C.R. 3; 2001 SCC 1 (CanLII); (2001), 193 D.L.R. (4th) 577; [2001] 6 W.W.R. 409; (2001), 150 C.C.C. (3d) 129; (2001), 39 C.R. (5th) 1; (2001), 80 C.R.R. (2d) 189; (2001), 203 Sask. R. 1
Prior history Judgment for the Crown in the Court of Appeal for Saskatchewan
Ruling Conviction and prison sentence upheld
Holding
The ten-year minimum sentence in this case did not amount to cruel and unusual punishment under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; the fairness of the trial was not compromised by the lateness of the decision on whether the jury could consider the defence of necessity.
Court Membership
Chief Justice: Beverley McLachlin
Puisne Justices: Claire L'Heureux-Dubé, Charles Gonthier, Frank Iacobucci, John C. Major, Michel Bastarache, Ian Binnie, Louise Arbour, Louis LeBel
Reasons given
Unanimous reasons by The Court
Bastarache and Lebel JJ. took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

R. v. Latimer [2001] 1 S.C.R. 3, was a decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in the controversial case of Robert Latimer, a Saskatchewan farmer convicted of murdering his disabled daughter Tracy Latimer. The case had sparked an intense national debate as to the ethics of what was claimed as a mercy killing.[1] In its decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the crime could not be justified through the defence of necessity, and found that, despite the special circumstances of the case, the lengthy prison sentence given to Mr. Latimer was not cruel and unusual and therefore not a breach of section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Court also ruled that Mr. Latimer was not denied rights to jury nullification, as no such rights exist. The prison sentence was thus upheld, although the Court specifically noted that the federal government had the power to pardon him.

Background[edit]

The Supreme Court described the background this way: Robert Latimer's daughter, Tracy Latimer, was 12-years-old and had cerebral palsy. As a result, she was quadriplegic, could not speak, and had the mental abilities of an infant. However, she was not dying of her disability. It was also believed that a feeding tube could help her health, but her parents believed such a medical device would be "intrusive." Thus, numerous surgeries were performed, and after the scheduling of another surgery in 1993, Mr. Latimer, who viewed the upcoming operation as also being cruel, "formed the view that his daughter's life was not worth living." Mr. Latimer thus poisoned his daughter with carbon monoxide. When the police made the discovery, Mr. Latimer denied responsibility but later admitted that he had killed her. He was convicted of second degree murder, but in R. v. Latimer (1997) the Supreme Court overturned that finding due to the Crown's improper actions at the jury selection stage.

In the subsequent second trial, Mr. Latimer was again convicted of second degree murder, but he was sentenced to only one year in prison rather than the minimum ten under the Criminal Code of Canada, since in the circumstances of the case 10 years was viewed as cruel and unusual. The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal later increased the sentence to 10 years. Mr. Latimer eventually appealed the case to the Supreme Court, arguing not only that the sentence was too long but also that the trial was unfair because the judge decided the defence of necessity could not be argued even though this decision came only after the defence had argued it. It was also claimed that the judge had misled the jury into thinking that they could influence the length of the sentence. Since many in the jury wished for a lighter sentence than that prescribed by the Criminal Code, it has been argued that the jury might have resorted to jury nullification had they known that they could not decide the length of the sentence.

Decision[edit]

The decision upholding the 10-year sentence was unanimous and was written by The Court.

Defence of necessity[edit]

The Court first held that not only was the defence of necessity unable to justify Robert Latimer's actions but also the inapplicability of the defence should have been so obvious that Mr. Latimer's lawyers should have anticipated its rejection, and therefore the fact that judge rejected it only after the defence was argued was not unfair. The Court first cited precedent that the defence of necessity is invoked only where "true 'involuntariness' is present." This involves being confronted with a serious danger, no other options but to commit a crime to avoid that danger, and "proportionality between the harm inflicted and the harm avoided." While the Court acknowledged that the individual's subjective views in measuring approaching dangers and other options could be taken into account, along with an objective assessment (this was called a "modified objective test"), in this case the defence of necessity failed. Firstly, the claimed danger being avoided, the surgery, threatened not Mr. Latimer but Tracy. Moreover, the Court wrote, "ongoing pain did not constitute an emergency in this case." The Court believed that Mr. Latimer should have been able to understand this, especially since there were alternatives to surgery such as the feeding tube. The Court went on to find that Mr. Latimer had other alternatives to killing his daughter, namely that "he could have struggled on," albeit "with what was unquestionably a difficult situation."

The Court also ruled that subjective views could not influence an assessment whether the crime is worse, equal or lesser than the threatened danger to the criminal, since "fundamental principles of the criminal law" would be sacrificed. In this case, the rights of the disabled, based in section 15 of the Charter, were considered to be the important factor in considering how serious the crime was. The Court had difficulties in deciding whether any type of emergency could justify homicide, and at any rate found that Tracy's death was worse than the pain Tracy might have felt during life.

Jury nullification[edit]

The Court went on to reject the argument that the trial was unfair because the chances of jury nullification were impaired by the judge. As the Court argued, there is no right to a trial in which one's chances of jury nullification are not impaired. Indeed, the justice system is not supposed to advocate jury nullification. Moreover, the judge's apparent suggestion that the jury might have some influence in determining the sentence was not considered misleading or unfair because, while juries cannot decide sentences, they can indeed make recommendations.

Section 12[edit]

Finally, the Court rejected the argument that the minimum 10-year sentence might be so long as to be cruel and unusual and thus unconstitutional under section 12 of the Charter. Since a section 12 test demands consideration of the seriousness of the crime, the Court pointed out that the crime led to the "most serious of all possible consequences, namely, the death of the victim, Tracy Latimer." The principle of mens rea thus guided the Court to argue that even though Mr. Latimer had been convicted of second as opposed to first-degree murder, "second degree murder is an offence accompanied by an extremely high degree of criminal culpability."

At this point, the Court, in balancing other factors in the case, namely how Mr. Latimer had planned his crime and did not regret it, and conversely, how he was distressed over Tracy's condition and was otherwise respected, did not find that any of the positive factors outweighed the crime. Moreover, the punishment was also considered by the Court to be valid because it might discourage others from taking similar actions.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Latimer still defends killing daughter". CBC News. 2011-02-17. Retrieved 2011-02-17. 

External links[edit]