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October 24, 2004

  • Our National Nightmare
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    There are some times when I think I'm having other people's dreams, or worse, their nightmares. One person's nightmare that I hope the whole country will emerge from very soon is that of Steven Truscott. I've been having nightmares about him, perhaps even a taste of his own nightmares, since I was a kid. I still have trouble sleeping when I hear about him.

    It's amazing how the collective psyche most Western countries have been shaped by murders which took place in the late fifties and early sixties: in New Zealand, there were the Parker-Hulme murder which Peter Jackson made into the film Heavenly Creatures. The UK were gripped by a string of child murders committed on the Yorkshire Moors by Myra Hindley and Ian Brady. The US had the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In Canada, we have the 1959 rape and murder of 12 year-old schoolgirl Lynne Harper, and the 14 year-old classmate who was convicted for the crime, Steven Truscott.

    While innocence of the victims and the monstrosity of the actions shaped the impact of these popular murders in other cultures, Canada's was shaped by the growing belief amongst many, including myself, that the wrong man was arrested for the crime. That Steven Truscott was, at 14, the youngest person to be sentenced to death—the sentence was, thankfully, commuted—makes the injustice even more unpalatable.

    In June, 1959, Steven Truscott was an ordinary Grade 8 student living on an Air Force base in Clinton, Ontario. One evening at the schoolyard, Truscott met with a girl he knew from school, Lynne Harper. She asked for a ride on his bicycle to the nearby No. 8 Highway. Lynne had a disagreement with her parents and told Steven she was going to a nearby farm to look at some ponies. Steven rode her on the handlebars of his bike to the Highway and dropped her off. As Steven rode back he saw her get into a 1959 Chevrolet—he recognized the distinctive fins. It was the 1950s. Kids were a lot more innocent about hitching rides, particularly in small towns.

    Lynne Harper was found three days later in a bush not far from the highway where Steven says he dropped her off. She had been brutally raped and strangled to death with her own clothes. Within 72 hours of the discovery of her body, Steven Truscott was arrested for her rape and murder.

    The case against Steven Truscott was circumstantial at best, disastrously flimsy at worst. Steven was seen by friends in the local stream passing over the bridge to the highway with Lynne by at least three people, and Steven himself was back at the schoolyard unfazed within a half an hour of riding with her. To build a case against him, the local coroner—who performed the autopsy in a poorly-lit funeral home—had to attest to an exact time of death based on Lynne's stomach contents within the half-hour window that Steven was known to be with her (something which any follower of CSI knows is next to impossible to do). They used two witnesses—friends of Steven's who claimed he was with Lynne as a part of some rendezvous gone wrong—whose story kept changing. The prosecution also blew out of proportion sores found on his penis, all the while using language designed to shock the conservative Western Ontario jury. That jury convicted Truscott but asked for mercy. Truscott was instead condemned to death by hanging.  He faced two execution dates before his sentence was commuted to life in prison.

    In 1959, the defence was not subject to discovery laws that are now a matter of course for criminal proceedings. They would not have known that the prosecution suppressed the testimony of other children who saw Steven and Lynne crossing the bridge, nor would they have known that the star witnesses changed their stories frequently, or that Lynne had shown signs of a struggle that would have lead to scratches on the murderer. They would not have known that people, including Lynne's parents, confirmed that Lynne hitchhiked even though at trial it was said she didn't.

    Worst of all, they would not have known the incredible tunnel vision that affected the entire police investigation. Police almost immediately moved all suspicion to Truscott in spite of the fact that on an Air Force base in 1959, there would be several sex offenders around with far more credible motives than a 14 year-old boy who was highly regarded by his friends.

    An investigation by the CBC's The Fifth Estate in 2001 turned up several potential suspects, including one airman who had been arrested for molestation in and around the Goderich area in 1959 who had been hospitalized for a nervous breakdown shortly after the Harper murder. The record of this airman was found in the mid-1960s by an Air Force officer who immediately connected it to the Lynne Harper murder. He alerted the Ontario Provincial Police only to be ignored. To this day, the OPP will not admit if they actually investigated this person or indeed any other suspect in the case.

    By this time, Truscott had his sentence commuted to life and was in Collins Bay Penitentiary and—as the result of a book by crusading author Isabel Lebourdais (which she had to publish in Britain before she could convince Jack McLelland to publish it here)—had a Supreme Court appeal of his case. It was 1966. The court upheld the original decision. Today it hardly seems surprising. The central idea of Lebourdais' book was shocking at the time—that the police and the legal system would make such a massive mistake was unthinkable to many—and once in court the conceit held true.

    Truscott was eventually released on parole in 1969, where he moved to Guelph under an assumed name, took up a trade and married and had kids. I first read about the story of Steven Truscott when I was nine (just a little older, it turns out, than Truscott's oldest daughter). It was 1979 and newspapers still carried a magazine with the Saturday paper, The Canadian Magazine. I read a piece in it written by Bill Trent—who had written two books about Truscott (including an alleged ‘as-told-to’; autobiography) and was immediately unsettled. Here was someone just a little older than me who was arrested and sentenced for death. It seemed unthinkable.

    I read Bill Trent's ‘autobiography’ as a teenager and felt even more unsettled. The book illustrates the horror of losing one's freedom—and indeed the ominous spectre of losing one's life—for something which they fervently claim they did not do. I remember coming to one passage in the book when Steven, almost 15, is invited to watch a hockey game at the home of the warden of the Huron County Jail one Saturday night while awaiting his execution and weeping. Even after his sentence was commuted, Steven is besieged by psychologists in prison who are convinced of his guilt—even prescribing sodium pentathol and LSD in the hopes he would somehow admit to it. It was a nightmare. It was, in fact, Steven Truscott's nightmare and we were all just visiting.

    By 2000, Steven Truscott was prepared to go public again. Interviews with Steven Truscott reveal the sort of nice guy who my Dad might have a conversation with at the local hardware store. He's an ordinary guy. It sounds as if he's been blessed with a marvellous wife and some great kids. But now that his kids are grown and he's a grandfather he wants his own name back and to have his criminal record—of which the Harper murder is the sole blemish—expunged. This was the start of a long campaign that will lead, hopefully, to his complete exoneration this week.

    First there was the Fifth Estate documentary and an astounding book by that documentary's producer, Julian Sher entitled Until You Are Dead. Both works dismantle the dubious forensic evidence and emphasize how much the investigation for the initial trial and the 1966 Supreme Court appeal was used to bolster the shaky premise that Steven Truscott committed a heinous crime rather than actually find the killer who did it. All the while showing that reasonable doubt has existed on this case from the beginning. Rereading it, my nightmares about Steven Truscott resurfaced, if they ever really vanished at all.

    In 2002, he began a process of having his original conviction reviewed by the Minister of Justice. The brief was written by the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted and it too is a shocking, haunting read. At this point I began to have actual nightmares about being Steven Truscott. Being the victim of what can only be described as a crime of expedience on the part of a corrupt legal system.

    This week, it is hoped that justice might begin for Steven Truscott. The 700 page review of his conviction, which was undertaken in 2002 by Quebec Justice Fred Kaufman has been sitting on the Federal Minister of Justice's desk since before the last election. The Minister, Irwin Colter is expected to make an announcement of his decision this week. The Minister can uphold the 1959 conviction, or if he feels there has been a miscarriage of justice he has two options: He can order a new trial—in effect, quashing the conviction—or refer the case back to an appeal court. It is unlikely that the prosecution would proceed with a new trial, which would effectively result in exoneration for Steven Truscott.

    In a cruel piece of timing, it will have been 45 years and a month since Steven Truscott was sentenced to die.

    If the Minister does not make his announcement, I would suggest that readers would do well to call or e-mail the Minister's office to ask him when it will be done. I know I will be doing that if nothing is said by Wednesday. Because the Truscott family has had justice delayed for too long.

    If AIDWYC's preference for a new trial in the same courtroom in Goderich, Ontario where Steven Truscott was found guilty 45 years ago happens, I may well be outside the court myself. Because that will be the day when Steven Truscott will be released from his own nightmare and Canadians will be released, a little, from a nightmare that has gripped them too. Although even then the nightmare will continue in some ways. After forty-five years, it is clear from the body of evidence that all we can do is exonerate Steven Truscott; justice will never be found for Lynne Harper. And that is the real tragedy of this whole affair.

    I hope the Minister announces something positive next week.



    Some links on the Truscott case, both of which contain documentary evidence:

    Historical Note: Justice was denied for Steven Truscott on the occasion for this column—the Minister of Justice, Irwin Colter, opted to simply pass the buck to the Ontario Court of Appeals, which meant another few years of waiting and making submissions to the court. But eventually, Steven Truscott found some justice when in 2007 the Court of Appeals declared there had been a miscarriage of justice and acquitted him.

    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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