A Quebec judge said she hopes the voices of caregivers struggling to care for loved ones are heard as she sentenced a Montreal man who suffocated his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife with a pillow to two years less a day in jail.
Michel Cadotte’s killing of Jocelyne Lizotte, 60, in her long-term care bed warranted a strong message, Superior Court Justice Helene Di Salvo said in a decision rendered late Tuesday.
“Whatever the motivation — and even in the name of compassion — the gesture must be denounced,” Di Salvo said.
But bigger societal questions surrounding support for caregivers, helplessness, life in long-term care and dealing with Alzheimer’s were all brought to the forefront in the case.
“The court is well aware that this case has raised passion in public opinion,” Di Salvo said. “As citizens, we can only hope that the alarming cries of the difficulties caregivers face, as well as the problem of the growing number of people with Alzheimer’s disease, will have been heard.”
The judge said determining a just sentence was her primary role, and neither the Crown nor the defence was able to find any jurisprudence that could guide her on sentencing.
A jury found Cadotte guilty of manslaughter last Feb. 23 in the death of his wife of 19 years. Lizotte, 60, was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease and was unable to speak or care for herself. But a doctor testified she was not considered to be at the end of her life and was receiving care to keep her comfortable under the circumstances.
Cadotte, 58, was clearly in love with Jocelyne Lizotte, Di Salvo said, but by taking her life on Feb. 20, 2017 at the long-term care facility where she was being treated, “he committed the irreparable. He caused the suffocation death of the woman he loved, and contrary to what any one might say, this does not make him a hero.”
In addition to the jail time, to be served in a provincial facility, Cadotte will also have three years of probation and 240 hours of community service to complete once he’s released.
The sentence, which is on top of 205 days Cadotte spent in preventive custody before the trial, fell well short of what the Crown had recommended. The Crown had sought an eight-year prison term, citing the vulnerability of the victim and the violent nature of her death.
Prosecutor Antonio Parapuf had little to say about the sentence but noted the judge repeatedly mentioned the need to send a message.
“Of course at this step, we will take time to analyze all the different criteria and all the different steps taken by the judge before rendering our decision (on an appeal),” Parapuf said. “Our thoughts go towards the family of the victim, and now we will take time to explain everything to them.”
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Defence lawyers Elfriede Duclervil and Nicolas Welt had recommended a sentence of between six and 12 months, which could have meant no additional time behind bars. Instead, Cadotte who was free on bail during the trial, was led away in handcuffs by court constables.
“We are sad. We are disappointed, because obviously we asked for much less,” Duclervil said, noting the judge took into consideration the unique facts of the case.
“She came up with two years minus one day, so we’re going to have live with that,” Duclervil added. “And hopefully … the family will start to grieve, but as a society, look around. It’s said that one out of four people face the same challenges. It’s not Michel alone.”
Cadotte had cared for his wife for nine years, struggling to keep her out of care until relenting in 2013.
Depressed and recovering from a weekend of heavy drinking, he testified that on the day of the killing he was saddened to see Lizotte with her neck bent, sitting in a geriatric chair without a specialized head rest.
He cried as he struggled to feed her lunch and then tried to place a pillow under her head. Cadotte said he couldn’t explain what happened, but after a couple of failed attempts, he placed the pillow over her face and smothered her.
“She was suffering too much,” Cadotte testified.
“I didn’t want her to suffer anymore. I was suffering for her.”
The trial heard that Cadotte struggled to provide care as his wife’s Alzheimer’s worsened, and a year before he killed her he inquired about a medically assisted death. But he was told that Lizotte was not eligible because she was not considered to be at the end of life and she lacked the ability to give consent.
Di Salvo noted that lawmakers took care in restricting medically assisted dying, and members of society cannot take justice into their own hands.
At sentencing, Lizotte’s adult sons and her younger brother held Cadotte accountable, believing he acted in his own interest. But one of Lizotte’s sisters, testifying for the defence, said she understood why Cadotte acted as he did.
The crime had been framed in the media as a compassion killing — an offence that doesn’t exist in the Criminal Code.
“If we can understand that the situation in which Mr. Cadotte found himself could have led to the fateful gesture, it remains that, in the eyes of law, this gesture cannot be excused,” Di Salvo said.
“To unlawfully cause the death of a human being will always constitute a reprehensible act, which must be punished.”