Originally published in The Western Report on September 4, 1995, the following article by Joe Woodard offers some interesting insights into Robert Latimer’s history with, and possibly his learned method of dealing with, the law…
WHO IS THE REAL ROBERT LATIMER?
The judge who sentenced him for rape now calls him salt of the earth
In mid-July, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal ruled against Robert Latimer's appeal of his second degree murder conviction. The three-judge panel unanimously upheld the decision of a jury in Latimer's original trial last November, where he was found guilty of killing his severely disabled 12-year-old daughter, Tracy. But one of the appeal court judges, Chief Justice E.D. Bayda, disagreed with the ten-year minimum sentence. He asserted that it was "cruel and unusual" punishment in Latimer's circumstances. He also recommended a "constitutional exemption" from the minimum sentence, based on his reading of Latimer's character and motivations. Because of Justice Bayda's dissent, Latimer is now free to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. In the meantime, he is out on bail.
In his dissent, Justice Bayda describes Robert Latimer as "typical salt of the earth...a devoted family man...loving, caring, nurturing." The "tragically disfigured" Tracy was "born clinically dead and need[ed] to be resuscitated" and thenceforth lived in constant pain. When Latimer put his daughter in his truck and piped lethal exhaust gases into its cab, he was "motivated by love, mercy and compassion..." Justice Bayda also noted that "the appellant has no criminal record. He poses no risk to society and requires no rehabilitation."
Latimer's record was indeed clean, despite the fact that he was convicted of rape in 1974. In May of that year, a jury in Battleford, Sask. found the then-21-year-old Latimer and another young man guilty in the rape of a 15-year-old girl in the nearby town of Wilkie on Sept. 8, 1973.
By remarkable coincidence, the presiding judge at Latimer's rape trial was none other than Justice E.D. Bayda. Thus, 21 years later, he would have been acutely aware of Latimer's clean criminal record, because the rape conviction was overturned on appeal when the trial judge was found to have erred in his handling of the case. The appeal court ruled that Justice Bayda had not permitted sufficient examination of the girl's previous sexual history, and that he'd hurried the jury's deliberations. The case was sent back to Battleford for retrial, but the Crown declined to prosecute anew.
The appeal court decision effectively quashed the public record of Latimer's rape conviction, which is why it was not brought up at his murder trial and appeal, nor will it be heard at his Supreme Court hearing. "I question the relevance of a 21-year-old charge," says Latimer's current lawyer, Mark Brayford.
While it's odd that the judge who presided over the rape trial that found Latimer guilty would now describe him as "salt of the earth," there are other aspects of Justice Bayda's assessment of the murder case that confound people like Saskatoon doctor Sheila Harding, herself the mother of a disabled child. "We only have his wife's word that [Latimer] was a good father, that Tracy was born dead, and that she couldn't be given pain-killers for her dislocated hip. What do we really know?"
Knowingly or unknowingly, Laura Latimer did introduce some inaccuracies into her husband's murder trial--and they were echoed in Justice Bayda's later dissent. "At birth, Tracy was healthy, with good APGARs [a test of newborns' vital signs]," says Richard Snyder, director of child development at Saskatoon's Kinsmen's Children's Centre. "She had to be resuscitated later her first day, but lots of babies do. And she could be given analgesics for her pain." Dr. Snyder surmises that Tracy was probably always uncomfortable, but quickly adds, "I certainly don't think we can go around killing our children."