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Verdict in Murder Case Unsettling For Disabled

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Toronto Star, October 1, 2005.

Parents who kill their children occupy a particularly chilling place in the court of public opinion. When those children have disabilities, their deaths reveal a side of humanity so dark it's hard to fathom.

More than a decade ago, when South Carolina mother Susan Smith drowned her two healthy sons, Michael, 3, and Alex, 14 months, the world screamed for the death penalty. It settled for sentencing her to life in prison.

By contrast, at the same time, Saskatchewan farmer Robert Latimer was tapping a well of public sympathy after admitting to asphyxiating his 12-year-old daughter, Tracy, who had cerebral palsy, "to put her out of her pain."

It's hard not to believe that the distinguishing factor was society's mistaken belief that disability is inextricably linked with pain and tragedy.

Amid public calls for leniency, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld Latimer's conviction for second-degree murder and he is now serving a minimum 10-year sentence, eligible for parole in 2007.

Yesterday, Ontario fitness expert David Carmichael was found not criminally responsible after being charged with first-degree murder for smothering his 11-year-old son, Ian, who had epilepsy.

The court had been told that Carmichael was in the midst of severe depression and psychosis, and killed his son to save him from what he believed to be a life of intolerable suffering.

"Dad killed son in 'an act of love,'" the headlines read. They were eerily similar to those that appeared during the Latimer case, "Dad confessed he killed girl ... 'to put her out of her pain.'"

But there are differences between the two cases, and one of the most significant relates to remorse.

Expert witnesses in the Carmichael case testified that the former director of ParticipAction, a bygone national program aimed at keeping children healthy, now realizes he was wrong.

Latimer, by contrast, believes to this day that he was right to end his daughter's life. "It was the right thing to do," he told the Toronto Star's Daniel Gerard in an interview last year.

"Robert Latimer wanted people to agree that he did the right thing," says Dick Sobsey, director of the University of Alberta's JP Das Developmental Disabilities Centre and father of a teenager with a severe form of epilepsy.

"In most cases, parents who kill say 'I snapped' and try to get off. Latimer wouldn't take that route. He was saying 'I want what I did validated.'

"He mounted an affirmative defense--in so many words saying 'I had no choice because of the situation.'"

In fact, Sobsey argues, Latimer had many choices. Thousands of children like Tracy successfully go through the surgery she faced. They live full lives whether they speak or not, whether they are fed through a tube or not.

Harriet McBryde Johnson, a prominent American disability-rights lawyer and self-described "jumble of bones in a floppy bag of skin," has seen her own life shaped by more than four decades of a muscle-wasting disease. She is a tireless and vocal opponent of so-called able-bodied people who translate their own pathological fears of technology into stereotypes of tragedy where disabilities are concerned.

"The whole of society has a stake in making sure ... courts are not tainted by prejudices, myths and unfounded fears--like the unthinking horror in mainstream society that transforms feeding tubes into fetish objects, emblematic of broader, deeper fears of disability that sometimes slide from fear to disgust and from disgust to hatred," Johnson has written in the online magazine, Slate.

Are children with disabilities more vulnerable today because Carmichael has been judged not criminally responsible for killing his son Ian?

We can only hope not.

Because of his own son's experience, Sobsey says he finds the case particularly unsettling.

"We have a son with very severe epilepsy," he says. "The idea that you can distort that to make it justify killing is very disturbing."

Nor is the legal process consistent in looking at mitigating factors, he says.

"Anyone who is hopped up on meth is out of touch with reality, but we don't excuse their crimes by saying they weren't making good decisions," Sobsey says.

"But if you have a middle-class guy facing a difficult situation, we're willing to stretch the law in terms of who's responsible for their actions and who's not.

"By having remorse, he changes things."

Reprinted with permission--Torstar Syndication Services.