Tracy Latimer is dead because her father is a murderer

It’s always hard for me to write a post about Tracy Latimer’s murder, especially in a space that’s got a lot more traffic than my own blog does. Where do I start? How do I express to a new audience the significance this case has in Canada, and how the murder of a 12 year old girl by her father 17 years ago changed drastically how Canadians talk about disability, and how disability is treated in Canada? Where do you start with that?

This post is going to talk about the murder of children with disabilities by their parents. I would recommend avoiding comments in most of the news links, because the comments generally turn into a referendum on whether or not it’s okay to kill disabled children.

Tracy Latimer, who had Cerebral Palsy, was 12 years old the day her father, Robert, waited until the rest of their family was at church and then carried her out to the garage, stuck her in the cab of the truck, ran a garden hose from the exhaust pipe into the cab, and left her there to die of carbon monoxide poisoning. Whenever I talk about this case, I feel the need to remind the reader: this is a means of killing we have made illegal when killing dogs, because it is considered to be so painful. This is the murder people would like you to believe is a “mercy killing”.

Tracy Latimer’s murderer, Robert, then put Tracy to bed, burned the hose that he had used to murder her, and lied to the police about how she died.

This case went to trail twice, and both times Tracy’s murder was found guilty of murder and sent to prison. He has done the bulk of his prison time according to Canadian law, and is currently doing a form of parole where he spends five days in a half-way house, and two days in his own apartment in Vancouver. This is how the law works here – in fact, I would agree with critics that Tracy’s murderer is being treated harshly by the parole board, but I also understand they want Tracy’s murderer to admit that maybe killing a child and trying to hide the evidence is a crime and that he should show some remorse. But we don’t really send people to prison here in order for them to show remorse. It’s done, let him go home.

But let’s talk about how Tracy Latimer’s murderer and the court cases around him are typically treated by the press, since Robert is in the press again, having been denied a loosening of his parole.

You’ll notice, I’m sure, that I keep referring to this as “Tracy Latimer’s murder”. If you read the newspapers from across Canada, you’ll instead see it referred to as “Robert Latimer, a Saskatchewan farmer, who was convicted of second-degree murder of his severely disabled daughter”. You will also find it referred to as a “mercy-killing”. Often Tracy’s name will only appear once, as “his 12 year old severely disabled daughter, Tracy”.

May 21, 2010: The Vancouver Sun: Latimer mercy-killing inspires new Ozzy Osbourne song: “The 10th track of Osbourne’s solo album entitled Scream, due out June 22, is Latimer’s Mercy which describes what Latimer may have felt in putting his daughter to death. The lyrics are poetic yet brutally graphic.”

July 28, 2010: The Montreal Gazette: A Wise and Sensible Verdict (This article is actually about an entirely different case, but felt the need to compare it to Tracy Latimer’s murder): “One need only remember Robert Latimer’s killing of his severely disabled 12-year-old daughter. He did it, he said, to release her from her suffering, to mercifully end her life.

Does anyone believe Robert Latimer was a cold-hearted killer?”

July 29, 2010: The Victoria Times-Colonist: Mercy killing can sometimes be honourable: (Same case as the one discussed above) “Similarly, Robert Latimer had no moral choice but to end his daughter’s agony at once by one means or another.”

August 19, 2010: The CBC: Robert Latimer wins parole review “Latimer was convicted of second-degree murder in the 1993 death of Tracy, his severely disabled, 12-year-old daughter, an act he described as a mercy killing.”

August 20, 2010: The Globe & Mail: Give Latimer More Latitude in his Day Parole: “The board needs to accept that he has paid his debt to society. He killed from compassion, according to a jury and a judge, who knew all the details of Tracy’s life and death, and was punished as a deterrent to others.”

The case is fairly consistently presented to the Canadian public as a “mercy killing”, and as the end of Tracy’s suffering. Often Tracy’s life is described as unbearable. Sometimes she is referred to as a “vegetable”. The only person who’s “side” of this story is consistently told is the man who murdered his daughter, and he is painted by the press as a man struggling against impossible odds, doing the only thing he could.

This is not what you read in the press:

In the trials, both Robert and his wife Laura claimed that Tracy was experiencing constant and uncontrollable pain. If this were true then why were they allowing Tracy to suffer when her pain was medically controllable? Their testimony conflicted with the writings in Laura’s own diary pertaining to the daily condition of Tracy. Laura’s diary stated that Tracy was often happy and smiling, and lately she had been eating well. Tracy’s teacher described her as a happy and loving person who did not show signs of extreme and uncontrolled pain, even though she had a dislocated hip. Tracy was scheduled for surgery to repair her dislocated hip which would have alleviated the pain and discomfort she was experiencing. In fact, Robert Latimer was charged with homicide on the same day that her surgery was scheduled to happen (November 4, 1993).

Many people are under the impression that the Latimers were overly burdened and lacking in support and respite service to care for Tracy. In fact, Tracy had lived in a respite home in North Battleford from July until early October, 1993. Tracy had returned home because she was scheduled for surgery. Tracy was also at school everyday. On October 12, just twelve days before Tracy was killed, Robert Latimer was offered a permanent institutional placement for Tracy in North Battleford. He rejected the placement because he said he had ‘other plans’. At this time, he had already decided to kill Tracy.

I harp on the way Tracy’s murder is treated in the press for one simple reason: The number of murders of children with disabilities by their parents has drastically increased in Canada since the Latimer case.

December 5, 1994 – Ryan Wilkieson, 16, Cerebral Palsy, Carbon monoxide poisioning similar the Latimer murder, which was in the news at the time.  Friends of Ryan’s murder, his mother, said she was distraught by the Latimer case. Murder/suicide.

May 28, 1996 – Katie Lynn Baker, 10, Rett Syndrome, starved to death. She weighed 22 pounds at her death. No charges were laid, as no one believed they could get a conviction.

November 6, 1996 – Charles-Antoine Blais, 6, autism, drowned in his bathtub by his mother. Charles-Antoine’s murderer was publically offered a job fundraising for the Autism Society of Greater Montreal, and and the head of Canada’s national autism society described her life as a total misery before Charles-Antoine’s murder. Suspended sentence.

November 21, 1996 – Andrea Halpin, 35, cognitive disabilities – shot to death by her father in a murder/suicide. He didn’t think she could live without him.

December 11, 1998 – Cory Moar,  29, cognitive disabilities – years of abuse by family members. I couldn’t find any more details after the lengthy description of the long-term injuries he sustained, because I had to throw up. You can read the inquest results in this handy PDF. Trigger warning.

May 19, 2001: Chelsea Craig, 14, Rett Syndrome, lethal dose of prescription drugs (attempted murder/suicide) Rachel Capra Craig, diagnosed with paranoid delusional disorder, later killed herself. She had been found incompetent to stand trial.

December 30, 2001 – Reece Baulne, 34, “learning difficulties”, carbon monoxide poisoning. In the suicide note that his parents wrote, they said they were killing themselves and Reece because they couldn’t care for him anymore, having been turned down for government funding.

July 12, 2004 – Jia Jia “Scarlett” Peng, 4, autism, drowned in bathtub by her mother who has been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. Scarlett’s murderer was initially sentenced, but the sentence was put aside due to an error on the part of the judge. She was recently sentenced to 5 years, but was released because of “time served”.

July 31, 2004 –  Ian Carmichael, 11, epilepsy and undefined “learning difficulties”, choked to death by his father who was diagnosed as having psychotic delusions as a result of side-effects from taking Paxil incorrectly. You can read David Carmichael’s webpage in which he discusses (briefly) how he murder his son (most of the page is about how Paxil made him do it). Trigger Warning.

September 25, 2004 – Charles Fariala, 36, “assisted suicide” – he first took a dose of medication and then his mother tied his hands and covered his face with a plastic bag. Wikipedia says his mother had Borderline Personality Disorder and this was a factor in her light sentence (3 years probation), but I haven’t found any other reference to her having a mental health condition, just that there were “extenuating circumstances”.

These names are part of the reason why I think Robert Latimer should always be referred to as a murderer, why I think think Tracy’s death should never be referred to as a “mercy killing”, and why I will invite Robert Latimer apologists to kindly find their way to the Globe & Mail website, since they obviously will welcome your comments far more than I will. They will not be published here.

We convict and vilify people for murdering their children all the time. Unless their children are disabled. Then, then, then, it’s “mercy killing”, and they should be defended at all costs.

26 thoughts on “Tracy Latimer is dead because her father is a murderer

  1. Thank you for highighting these cases. It’s too overwhelming for me to formulate a cogent reply, but I think you have said it all here… I cannot imagine other circumstances in what a person’s life would be so utterly unvalued by society that the words ‘mercy killing’ would be deemed appropriate.

  2. I normally don’t comment on posts like this, however, there is one thing I’d like to add, summing up how I feel about this (indiscriminately).

    Murder is murder.

  3. [Ed note: trigger warning]

    In the UK there was a huge debate over “mercy killings” earlier this year, as there were two trials within a week of each other. One of them was of a mother who murdered her son with a heroin overdose after he had suffered brain injuries falling out of an ambulance after a fight in a pub; she convinced herself that he was in agony and had no hope of recovery, which his doctors said he had. She was found guilty and got nine years to life (the lowest sentence you can get for murder). The second was for attempted murder, and involved a mother whose daughter had suffered from ME for seventeen years and had, since mid-1992, been bedridden, in extreme pain and unable to sit up, speak or swallow. She had also suffered a lot of abuse, particularly early on in her illness (age 14). The daughter had given herself a massive diamorphine overdose, but the mother had given her other medication in between that and her death, as she said, to make sure she wasn’t in distress, while the prosecution claimed that it was to make sure the suicide actually worked. She was found not guilty.

    The BBC consistently blew the trumpet for both mothers and seemed to be running a propaganda campaign for mercy killing and assisted dying, to the extent that it was complained about in Parliament. While the second mother denied that her actions were intended to speed up her daughter’s death, even some supportive articles in the popular press said that she had in fact “killed her daughter” and that was OK given that she wanted to die (as she made clear to her family and her online friends). There was a documentary on the case on the BBC and it consisted of half an hour, entirely focussed on the mother and much more on the death than on what caused her daughter to get so ill in the first place (a classic case of an aggressive case of ME being exacerbated by too much exercise and stress; it is quite possible that her condition would have worsened, but if she had not been treated so badly, her experience of severe ME might not have been quite so dire and so protracted). Even when ME Awareness week came round in May, there were two interviews with her and both focussed on her helping her daughter to die and much less on the illness itself.

    This is not quite the same thing as killing a disabled child, because it was an assisted suicide and the daughter had made it perfectly clear that she had had enough and wanted out (a point I tried debating with a British disability blogger who insisted that it was a classic case of a murder of a disabled person, ignoring the fact that the victim had been incessantly and miserably ill for years). However, I disagree with the assumption that “mother knows best” in the case of the first mother as mothers are quite capable of making misjudgements about their own children and how they are thinking or feeling from their tone of voice, facial expression or whatever; they shouldn’t be allowed to make life-or-death decisions based on these kinds of judgements.

  4. If all the time and energy that went into shaming pregnant women could go towards supporting children like Tracy and their caregivers, the world would look a hell of of lot different. Family values, anyone?!

  5. Thank you for talking about Tracy Latimer’s murder, and also for discussing the ripple effect it’s had culturally. Some people like to say that talking about oppressive cultural attitudes is just “manufacturing outrage,” but it should be harder for them to say that when they can see a list of dead and abused persons who’ve had to suffer because of those attitudes.

  6. Thanks for making this post, I was aware of Tracy Latimer’s murder but I hadn’t seen the facts laid out so clearly in one place. It kind of reminds me of Katie McCarron’s murder in the US, where everyone immediately rushed to say “OH IT MUST HAVE BEEN SO HARD FOR HER MOTHER TO RAISE A CHILD WITH AUTISM” and then it turned out that Katie didn’t live with her mom. People just automatically make this disability=burden equation and they can’t be coaxed out of it by actual information, like the fact that the victim and the murderer didn’t even live together. I didn’t know this was true in Tracy’s case as well.

  7. Thank you, Anna.

    I don’t know what else to say about this, because every time I think about these cases, it hurts. But thank you.

  8. omg. I’m horrified. like, mouth hanging open, horrified.
    I’m new to working with individuals with disabilities, but even after a few weeks with my organization, I appreciate and value each person. They are not a ‘burden’, they are individuals, and unique. And valueable, just like any other person.

    Thanks also to FWD/Forward; I learn a lot from the posts here.

  9. The one that makes me really sad is the one where the family was denied funding. It was a horrible thing to do, but it seems like such an awful situation, to be denied the help you need. It reminds me of the suicides and murder-suicides here in the US by people who are losing their homes. They feel like they have no way out of their situation and they’re losing everything they’ve ever known. I DO NOT condone killing anybody, but it seems like a lot of this shit could be prevented if there was just more public help available for people who can’t afford the help they need from private sources. Universal health care including mental health care and support for PWDs, a strong public housing system, etc.

    It’s horrible that there has been an increase in murders of PWDs since the Tracy Latimer murder. Absolutely heartbreaking. The public will condemn parents who kill their able-bodied children, but sympathize with parents who kill their disabled children?

  10. Thanks for this post Anna. I was recently struck by a number of murder cases of autistics and the way they’re handled in the media. Were you aware of the blog “Lives lost to autism”? This is simply a collection of news reports of autistics who died, of any cause including murder, and attrbitues the deaths to autism. The blog was set up after the murder/suicide of an autistic man and his mother a few weeks ago.

  11. I remember this case so vividly. I was in grade 9 in Manitoba, and I was 14. I remember hearing about this case from class, and our Social Studies teacher prompted discussion. I don’t remember the exact details of the class, however I remember debating this with my father. He was on the “mercy-killing” side of things, insisting he was just a father that didn’t want his daughter to suffer anymore. I wasn’t aware of the details of the case at the time, but I definitely remember getting angry at my dad and saying something along the lines of “I don’t care why he did it! He murdered her!”

    I remember feeling so much remorse because Tracy Latimer was so close to my age, and that she didn’t get a say. I remember thinking that if it were me, I would not want to die…

  12. Thank you for laying out the facts so well, Anna. I have been reeling from this same kind of attitude in the US regarding the murders of autistic children. The response from the autism “experts” (none of whom are autistic, by the by) is basically “sad, but understandable,” either because the parent didn’t have support in the community (to which I can only reply “Try being actually disabled if you want to know about no support in the community”) or because the mother must be mentally ill (as opposed to simply feeling entitled to a “normal” child). I have yet to see a mainstream news report anywhere that simply begins “Disabilism kills.”

  13. To make, perhaps, a rash generalization, I find with a lot of murders of autistics there seems to be a “we must protect the parent” response from Parents of Autistics organizations. And I know that not all parents of autistic children support that at all! And yet, so many times, you get those sorts of quotes from the organizations. And people will not understand why autistics and other people with disabilities are distrustful of parent-focused organizations.

  14. Anna, you are absolutely right that not all parents of autistics support the “pity the poor parents” approach. To many parents, it’s anathema. And yet, that’s what many “Parents” organizations seem to sell, and it’s definitely a lowest-common-denominator approach. There are too many parents who feel entitled to having “normal” children and are pissed off that their lives haven’t turned out as planned, and these organizations pander to that kind of mentality. In the US, at least, this kind of pandering keeps the money rolling in, because when it’s all based on “finding a cure,” it’s based on the same mythology as any other kind of advertising: “Just send us your money and we’ll make your lives risk-free, loneliness-free, hardship-free, trouble-free, and thought-free forevermore.”

    Of course, this kind of thinking is deeply dangerous to disabled people, because we are constant reminders that life cannot be sanitized of its difficulties, for anyone.

  15. Thank you for this post. I was previously unaware of Tracy Latimer’s murder, as well as the murders of other children that hers inspired. I find it incredibly hard to believe that their murderers aren’t serving life sentences and are sympathized with by the general public. What those people did to their children is gruesome and inexcusable. Murder is murder, and no amount of sanctimonious propaganda changes the fact that someone is dead.

    I’m disgusted that Charles Fariala’s murder was reported as “assisted suicide”; it’s not assisted suicide if there wasn’t informed consent and legal waivers beforehand, and it’s definitely not assisted suicide if someone tied his hands and put a bag over his head. Jesus H. Christ. I’m sure parenting any child is hard and expensive, but if people can’t take it, then maybe they shouldn’t have kids.

  16. I agree with you overall. The rhetoric around the murders of disabled people is disgusting, and not holding their murderers adequately responsible is a serious injustice, and generally I don’t have words for how shitty this makes me feel.

    However, I was struck by the proportion of parents in this sample who are mentally ill. I think that makes the issue more complex. I know not all mentally ill people identify as disabled, and I suspect that the mentally ill parents who murder their disabled children do not identify with their children in this way (I identify as disabled on account of my mental health problems and LD, but I recognize that there’s a tremendous gap between my experience and the experience of people with different kinds of disabilities). But at least some of the time, murders of disabled people happen in part because a mentally ill person is not receiving adequate treatment and support for their own condition. Please note that I say that inadequate treatment of a mentally ill parent is only one contributing factor: prevailing ideas about disability seem to be at least as significant in those cases. I am also not implying that there should be no accountability. But esp in the case of the murder/suicides, it seems like there was an adult with completely inadequately treated health problems.

    It might be worthwhile to compare the number of murders generally by mentally ill people (not all of whom get diagnosed, of course …) and the number of murders of disabled people by mentally ill people (ditto).

  17. Yeah, I was struck by that too when I was reading the statistics. In my experience (which, let’s be honest, I follow the cases of murdered children with disabilities specifically), there seems to be more “understanding” that a parent with a mental health condition would be overwhelmed by caring for a child with a disability. Certainly in cases where a parent (usually a mother) has drowned her non-disabled child there hasn’t been quite the rhetoric.

    It just further demonstrates, though, that the sort of programs that can help parents cope with parenting need to be inclusive not only of the parents of children with disabilities, but also of parents who have disabilities themselves.

  18. There were two things that jumped out at me on that list–one was the number of parents with mental illnesses. The other was the number of incidents where the parents attempted suicide, especially the man who felt his daughter couldn’t live without him. Isn’t that fairly typical of parental murder/suicide cases?

    I’ve heard of the Latimer case, but I wasn’t aware that it had spawned more similar incidents. Poor kids 🙁

  19. The (brief) literature I read called them “altruistic” murders – people who justify the murder of their children (both disabled and non) with “they’re better off that way” and “they can’t live without me”.

    In the case of the shooting, for example, the father had been diagnosed with cancer, and decided that his only alternative was to kill her and himself. In the case of Ian Carmichael, part of his father’s psychosis (according to his website) was that Ian was going to suffer if he didn’t die, and his father called the police immediately and told them what he had done and waited patiently to be taken to prison.

    There is a case mentioned in one of my links about a parent who killed his child because he feared the child might become disabled, but they didn’t go into details.

    The same sort of altruistic murders do happen with parents with non-disabled children, but in general I don’t see them getting laudatory op-eds about how brave they are.

  20. Thanks for posting about it; you are reaching people with these posts. Sometimes I feel like we need a feminist, non-racist, non-ablist (etc.) newspaper to counter the harmfulness of the mainstream ones.

  21. What I can’t stand is people acting like this is ever okay.

    And as far as “assisted suicide” goes, it’s different than most people think it is. As in, why is it that if a disabled person wants to die it’s considered reasonable but if a nondisabled person wants to die they’re subject to every possible suicide prevention? Every suicidal person has “had enough and wanted out”, but there’s a huge difference in how suicidal disabled people (particularly disabled in a way that isn’t mental illness) are treated, and nondisabled (except for whatever is causing the suicidal thoughts) suicidal people are treated. Until that difference is thoroughly accounted for it’s not possible to be sure that someone “really would have wanted to die”. And it’s never fully accounted for — even when people manage to get suicide prevention efforts, often the professionals they deal with have a lot of ableist biases and reaffirm their choice to die because they’re disabled and disability is automatically just cause for wanting to die. I can’t get into all the issues here (read stuff by people at Not Dead Yet for further analysis of such things), but it’s far more complicated an issue than most people who believe it’s a viable option make it.

    But overall? There’s no excuse for any of this. Every time it’s excused, more of it happens. It could be you next. It could be me next. It could be any disabled person next. And frankly, a lot of the “but she was living a life of agony and we had to put an end to it for her own good” talk, is a pre-planned excuse to get sympathy from people. So is the “I just couldn’t stand the strain of caring for someone” talk (which often enough comes from other people besides just the Latimers, who murdered children who actually were not even living with them most of the time, or who in fact were never living with them). These are things murderers say to get away with murder. Sometimes they mean them but much of the time it’s a lie to get sympathy.

    You can see what a lot of the groups that fight for the “right” to “assisted suicide” really think, when they frequently defend people who murdered people who not only didn’t ask to be killed but couldn’t ask to be killed. These are essentially hate groups, and they never show that so clearly than when they constantly step in to defend murders that have absolutely nothing to do with suicide in any form. And they do constantly step into these situations. There’s a lot of information about this out there from disability rights groups.

  22. I normally agree with Amanda’s position with regard to assisted suicide and have read a lot of the material from Not Dead Yet and others within the disability community who are opposed to the whole assisted dying agenda. (I should add that I’m opposed to it for religious reasons too.) In my earlier post I said that what should have been an opportunity to educate people about ME, about which there has been tremendous ignorance and a conspiracy to deny its existence in sections of the medical profession was turned into a debate on assisted dying, even during ME Awareness Week. I recently watched through the documentary that was broadcast after the case closed in January and it featured interviews with two public figures who have degenerative illnesses, one of whom is campaigning for “clarity” so that her husband can take her to Switzerland without fear of prosecution. I was amazed that both seem to have been thinking of how they could kill themselves — had their fingers on the quit sequence, so to speak — almost from the first sign of trouble. The agenda is so advanced that people are already talking about it when they are still quite able.

    Still, in this particular case, while I’m not comfortable with what the mother did, I can safely say, having spoken to two of the victim’s friends, seen most of what she wrote that is public and read the press reports extensively, that there was no pre-planning on the part of anyone except the victim (since her name and story is a matter of public record: Lynn Gilderdale) herself. Her mother had cared for her round the clock since 1992 and was quite prepared to go on doing so, and she and others had tried to dissuade her from taking her own life. There have been other cases where people who were close to doing the same were saved by some intervention, such as (in one well-known British case) being introduced to a disabled sailing club, but it’s hard to see what could have worked in this way for Lynn; her condition meant she had to spend most of her time simply lying alone in the dark, in pain, doing nothing, and she could see no prospect of it ending. Admittedly, her memory had improved (from virtually non-existent to poor), but everything else had stayed the same from 1992 to 2008 – constant pain, nausea, hypersensitivity to light and sound, not being able to have anyone around her for very long, osteoporosis, being totally bedridden, among other things – had stayed the same or got worse, along with the trauma of abuse and various medical disasters over the years (some of them caused or exacerbated by doctors’ negligence). There was no serious distraction from it and no prospect of any improvement. Her condition was so dire that it bears no comparison with almost any other disability.

    Most of Lynn’s friends (members of online communities she was able to access via a pocket computer from her bed, many of them also with ME although not quite as ill as she was) were supportive of her mother and with, perhaps, one exception, none of them wanted to see her go to jail (she didn’t). She had, after all, looked after their friend for years. I suspect many of them would not have contemplated the matter, let alone how it relates to those with autism or any other condition besides Lynn’s extreme form of ME, before Lynn died.

  23. Thank you for writing this deeply troubling post: it’s important to be said, it’s important that people hear that ableism isn’t just about being “politically correct” it’s about people. And the lives and deaths of those people.

  24. Thank you for this post. Based on the horror I felt reading it, I can’t imagine how it felt to write/research it.

    I have a question about the inclusion of the final case, though, which is basically, why is it included? You list it as an assisted suicide. Someday I will gave to go this route, and I would much rather my partners be there than not. I guess there’s really no way to be completely sure if Charles (or any other person) would have “succeeded” at suicide without help, but do you have reason to believe that it was not his wish to die?

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