Saturday, September 29, 2007

The acquittal of Steven Truscott

Some years ago I bought a secondhand copy of a book called The Trial of Steven Truscott by Isabel LeBourdais. Published in Canada in 1966, it told an incredible story.

In 1959 the body of a 12-year-old girl called Lynne Harper was found. She had been raped and strangled. Suspicion fell on Steven Truscott, a boy of 14, who admitted giving her a lift on his bike the evening she disappeared. His story was that he had taken her to a nearby main road and seen ber accept a lift as he cycled home.

He was tried for her murder, convicted and - unbelievably - sentenced to hang. His death sentence was not commuted for almost four months, after his appeal had failed. Truscott later recalled this period for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporaton programme Fifth Estate:
"I woke up one day and somebody was building something outside the wall. You could hear the hammering, and I thought they were building a scaffold. And it's just kind of living in terror, and every day you expect it to be your last."
Truscott served 10 years in a juvenile facility and then an adult prison.

Isabel LeBourdais's book argued that he had been the victim of a miscarriage of justice. Reading it, it was clear that there had been a rush to judgement: once the police had decided he was the culprit there had been no further attempts to investigate the crime and their efforts were concentrated on gettng him to confess - something he refused to do.

Most importantly, it was clear the prosecution had placed far more weight on the forensic evidence than it could possibly bear. An analysis of Lynne Harper's stomach contents was used to "prove" that she died within the narrow 30-minute window when she was alone with Steven Truscott. If she had died any later than that, when Truscott was home with his family, then he could not have been her killer.

There was a further appeal in 1966, inspired by LeBourdais's book, but it was dismissed. One judge did enter a dissernting judgment, taking Truscott's side.

And there the story seemed to have ended. Truscott was released in 1969 and lived quietly under a different name.

In 2000 Truscott emerged from obscurity. He gave an interview to the CBC programme Fifth Estate. He maintained his innocence and hoped the new DNA fingerprinting technology could be used to prove it.

It turned out there was no useful forensic evidence left from the original investigation, but the renewed interest in the case led to important developments.

In November 28 2001, lawyers for the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, led by James Lockyer, filed an appeal to have the case reopened. In January 2002 a retired Quebec Justice was appointed to review the case - a process which even involved the exhumation of Lynne Harper's body. And in October 2004 the case was retured to the Ontario Court of Appeal.

The press reports I saw of the appeal suggested that it was widely accepted that the forensic evidence produced at the original trial was not anything like as damning as the prosecution had argued at the time. There were also some undisclosed witness statements from other children who had seen Truscott and Harper on the evening she disappeared, and these were generally helpful to his case.

I followed these developments for a time, but had forgotten about the case when the court took a long time to reach its decision. Then a few days ago I came across this report from Reuters:
Truscott acquitted of 48-year-old murder conviction
A Canadian man who was sentenced to hang for murder nearly 50 years ago was acquitted on Tuesday by an appeal court, which described the original sentence as a miscarriage of justice.
The Ontario Court of Appeal overturned Steven Truscott's 1959 conviction in the rape and murder of a 12-year-old classmate in small-town southwestern Ontario. He was 14 at the time, and became Canada's youngest death-row inmate.
"The court unanimously holds that the conviction of Mr. Truscott was a miscarriage of justice, and must be quashed," it said. "We are satisfied that if a new trial were possible, an acquittal would clearly be the more likely result."
The court stopped short of a formal statement of Truscott's innocence, but this was still an extraordinary victory for all those who have campaigned on his behalf, and for Truscott himself.

According to Reuters he told reporters after verdict:
"I never in my wildest dreams expected, in my lifetime, for this to come true," the soft-spoken Truscott told reporters in Toronto after the ruling. "As far as I'm concerned, I'm cleared."
What always stood out from was not so much that Truscott was obviously innocent - the only thing that could have proved that was DNA evidence - but that he did not receive anythng approaching a fair trial. The fairest comment I have seen since the verdict comes from the Edomonton Journal:
People walk free out of Canadian courtrooms every day with a great deal more evidence against them than Truscott faced. We accept that because any standard less than proof beyond a reasonable doubt will only produce a parade of miscarriages of justice.

The least we can expect, if accused of a crime we didn't commit, is a fair trial. As the Truscott decision makes clear, he did not receive one years ago and it took almost 48 years for the justice system to right that wrong.
Three things stand out from this case.

The first is that it is a reminder that there is a great danger of miscarriages of justice in sensational cases - not that we should need reminding of that here in Britain.

The second is that a piece of evidence means little on its own. At the time of Lynn Harper's murder the fact that Steven Truscott went to school as normal the morning after her disappearance and did well in an examination was seen as proof that he was some kind of monster. It could just as well have served as proof of his innocence.

The third is that it is extraordinary that a boy of 14 could be sentenced to hang in a Western democracy in 1959.


Nich Starling said...

You learn something new every day on your blog. Thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

The take-home message for me is that capital punishment is a huge mistake, just because of the fact that overturning a conviction after the accused has been killed is of small comfort.

Eamon Knight said...

I was too young to be aware of the case when it first happened, but Stephen Truscott is a name that every Canadian boomer has heard. The case just kept on popping up its head every few years, either with new developments, or in news-magazine documentaries. There was even a feature movie made about it in the 70s.

I expect we'll next hear about it in about 25 years when Truscott passes away (assuming average statistics).