MONTREAL—The sentencing hearing for a man convicted of manslaughter in the death of his ailing wife could renew the debate over so-called compassion killings in Canada, and whether a killer motivated by mercy deserves a more lenient sentence than any other, experts say.
Michel Cadotte’s lawyer described Jocelyne Lizotte’s illness as a “tsunami” that ravaged her family, friends and loved ones and eventually led to her death at the hands of her husband, who smothered her to death in the bed of a long-term care facility.
Late last month, a jury found Cadotte guilty of manslaughter in the killing of Lizotte, 60, who was in the last stages of Alzheimer’s disease. He had originally been charged with second-degree murder.
Cadotte’s lawyers argued their client was in a disturbed state of mind and acted impulsively on Feb. 20, 2017, seeking to end his wife’s suffering. Outside the courtroom, the crime had been framed by the defence and the media as a compassion killing — an offence that doesn’t exist in the Criminal Code.
“There’s no side to this story,” defence lawyer Elfriede Duclervil said outside the courtroom following the verdict. “It’s a tragedy, and there are no sides, only pain and sorrow and tragedy.”
Arthur Shafer, the director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, believes there’s a chance Cadotte could escape jail time altogether.
Shafer has long advocated for a law on compassionate homicide, which would carry a lesser sentence than first or second-degree murder.
“I don’t think you could find one in a thousand Canadians who could say that someone who commits a planned murder for greed, cruelty, jealousy, or any of a number of other motives should be given the same punishment as someone who kills a loved one to spare them from intolerable suffering,” he said in a phone interview.
Witnesses at Cadotte’s trial portrayed him as a devoted husband who spent years caring for his wife, including after she went into care and was no longer able to speak, feed or take care of herself. The court heard that Cadotte had inquired about a medically assisted death for Lizotte a year before she was killed, but was informed she did not qualify because of her advanced Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
Shafer compared the case to that of Robert Latimer, who was convicted of killing his severely disabled 12-year-old daughter nearly 25 years ago by piping exhaust fumes into the cab of his truck.
Latimer appealed after he was convicted of second-degree murder in 1994 and the Supreme Court of Canada ordered a new trial due to jury interference. He was convicted again and eventually sentenced to life in prison with no parole for 10 years. He was granted full parole in November 2010.
But while some Canadians may feel sympathy for Latimer and Cadotte, disability rights activists say framing such homicides as merciful devalues the lives of people with severe illnesses and disabilities.
“To grant Mr. Cadotte a lighter sentence on the basis of Ms. Lizotte’s having Alzheimer’s would be to send the message that Canadians living with Alzheimer’s and other degenerative conditions no longer have the same protection under the law as do other Canadians,” said Heidi Janz, a spokesperson for the Council of Canadians with Disabilities.
While Latimer served a multi-year sentence, there have been instances where Canadian courts and juries have shown leniency towards others who have killed family members they perceived to be suffering.
In 2006, 88-year-old Tony Jaworski, was sentenced to three years probation after pleading guilty to manslaughter in the stabbing death of his terminally ill wife, Sophie.
That same year, Andre Bergeron of Sherbrooke, Que. received three years’ probation for aggravated assault in relation to the death of his severely ill wife. The judge at the time said he would have ordered a jail sentence but for mitigating circumstances, including the accused’s devotion to the victim.
By convicting Cadotte of manslaughter rather than second-degree murder, Shafer believes the jury in the Cadotte case may have been sending a message that they were uncomfortable with the mandatory life sentence for second-degree murder, even if it was legally arguable that his actions fit the definition of the crime.
“One of the functions of juries is to bring the common sense of ordinary citizens into the courtroom. And when the law is unduly harsh or inflexible, doesn’t allow humane discretion, juries sometimes bring that humanity into the courtroom,” he said.
But a legal expert at the University of Toronto’s Osgoode Hall Law School, who is not familiar with Cadotte’s case, said it’s impossible to know, since juries are not allowed to reveal the reason behind their decisions.
“Did the jury feel that the mandatory minimum sentence of life imprisonment seem unfit, even if that was what the Crown felt was the appropriate way of classifying the offence? We’ll never know,” he said.