I have written a a book about Steven Truscott.
For those who don’t know, Steven was a 14-year-old kid living at an air base in Clinton, ON. On the sweltering hot night of June 9, 1959, Steven met up with a class-mate named Lynne Harper. She was 12 and like Steven, her parents worked for Royal Canadian Air Force base Clinton. Around 7 pm, Steven gave Lynne a bike ride to Highway 8 and dropped her off. He last saw her hitch-hiking at the side of the road, getting into a car. Steven biked back to the local school grounds around 8 pm and chatted with acquaintances. When asked, these acquaintances all said Steven looked and sounded perfectly normal. He wasn’t even sweating heavily, on an extremely hot night. Steven chatted for a bit then cycled home, to be in time for 8:30 pm baby-sitting duties.
Lynne disappeared. She was found a couple days later in a wooded part of Clinton called Lawson’s Bush. She was dead, and likely raped. Most of her clothing was removed and neatly piled up—shorts zipped up, socks rolled up—near her corpse. For some reason, her killer had arrayed three branches over her body, not for hiding but maybe for some weird fetish.
If a bank is robbed, it’s standard operating procedure for police to check in on known bank robbers living in the vicinity of the bank that was robbed. In this case, police immediately zeroed in on Steven Truscott—a boy with no criminal record, no history of violence, or delinquency. Steven was the last person to be seen with Lynne. Ergo, he must have raped and killed her. Or so thought police who didn’t even bother checking up on local sex offenders in the area.
Steven was interrogated for hours by police, without a lawyer and without a parent present most of the time. Police told him he was liar and tried to get him to confess to Lynne’s death. He wouldn’t budge. Steven insisted he had dropped her at the highway and she got into a stranger’s car. Steven’s interrogation went on until the early morning hours of June 13. Then, he was charged with murder and put in jail.
Steven was put on trial in Goderich, Ontario in the fall of 1959. He was found guilty despite virtually no physical evidence that tied him to the crime. None. No blood or semen residue, or pieces of his flesh under Lynne’s fingernails. Nothing. The Crown’s case was entirely circumstantial. Why a perfectly normal 14 year-old would suddenly decide to brutally rape and murder a classmate wasn’t explained. Nor was it explained how he could have committed these crimes in the extremely brief window between meeting Lynne then biking home to babysit (without even breaking a sweat or getting blood on his clothes, no less).
Steven was 14 years-old, and on death row. Not eager to be seen murdering young teenagers, the Canadian government soon commuted Steven’s sentence to life imprisonment. Steven was placed in the Guelph Training School for Boys (a facility for juvenile delinquents) until he was 18, then he was moved to Collins Bay Penitentiary in Kingston, ON. He continued to protest his innocence.
Steven’s case was reviewed in an unprecedented hearing by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1966. They voted 8-1 to uphold the verdict. Steven spent three more years in jail, then was released on parole.
Capital punishment was abolished in Canada in 1976. Steven had escaped the hangman’s noose, but remained a convicted murderer in the eyes of the law and had to live under an assumed name.
In the mid-1990s, a new diagnostic tool appeared on the scene that proved invaluable in criminal cases. Testing for DNA—that is, the molecular building blocks of life—became widespread. DNA testing allowed authorities to determine if there was a biological link between a suspect and a victim or a crime scene. If a suspect left trace amounts of blood, saliva, hair, semen or skin behind, these traces could be tested for DNA. If the DNA matched that of the suspect, chances were they were guilty.
Conversely, DNA testing could also prove a suspect was innocent. The absence of DNA helped secure the release of two men—Guy Paul Morin and David Milgaard from prison in the mid-1990s. Like Steven, both had been jailed for murder. Turns out, they didn’t kill anybody.
Steven became involved with a group called the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC), a non-profit band of lawyers who had helped Morin fight his charges. AIDWYC wanted to use DNA to clear Steven. Only problem was, all the evidence in the case including, swabs, clothing, hair samples, had been destroyed shortly after Steven’s trial. Authorities exhumed Lynne Harper to see if her body could reveal any DNA clues. Only her remains were in such bad shape, no DNA samples could be taken.
Steven and AIDWYC fought on. Steven appeared on-camera in a CBC-TV documentary in 2000 that detailed his case. Questions about his conviction were raised in the House of Commons. The federal justice minister ordered a review of the case. The review suggested Steven was wrongly convicted. The Ontario Court of Appeal was then tasked with determining if this was the case.
On August 28, 2007, the Court of Appeal squashed Steven’s conviction and acquitted him. The Ontario Attorney-General apologized to Steven on behalf of the provincial government. Steven was no longer a convicted murderer in the eyes of the law.
Steven’s case might be hard for people to grasp, in this era of CSI and TV shows featuring magic scientific tools for investigating crime.
If DNA testing had existed in 1959, police could have used it to determine if Steven was guilty or not and, equally important, track down Lynne Harper’s real killer.
Which makes me wonder, how many people have been put to death based on evidence as shaky as that presented at Steven’s trial?
If society tolerates the death penalty, then it at least must satisfy without a single doubt that the person they execute is in fact guilty.
Mandatory DNA testing in all capital cases is what I say, to prevent future cases of innocent boys sentenced to die for things they didn’t do.
Link to my other crime books on Amazon: http://qr.net/fg8j