November 1, 2012, Steven Truscott: Decades of Injustice, by Nate Hendley, was released in both print and eBook formats.
We interviewed Hendley about his new book. Here’s what he had to say.
Q: The Truscott case has to be one of the most tragic miscarriages of justice in Canada’s history, and yet one with the most startling triumph. Can you, please, briefly, give us an overview of the Steven Truscott case?
NH: Sure. Fourteen year-old Steven Truscott lived with his parents on an air force base near a small community called Clinton, Ontario. Truscott was well-liked, normal and athletic by all accounts. On the night of June 9, 1959, he was seen riding his bike around the school that served the kids at the RCAF base. He gave a lift to a female classmate named Lynne Harper. He said he dropped her off at a local highway where she began hitch-hiking for a ride. Several witnesses saw the two of them biking by, then Truscott returning on his own. Truscott talked to several people after leaving Harper. No one noticed anything unusual about him, much less bloodstains.
Harper went missing. On June 11, a search party found her partly naked body in some local woods. She had been sexually assaulted and strangled. Police zeroed in on Truscott, because he was the last person seen with her. He denied killing her but police were convinced. They interrogated him—without a lawyer or his parents present—for hours. No one bothered to tell Truscott what his rights were under the law—that until the police arrested him, he could have legally just walked away from the interrogation.
Truscott found himself charged with Harper’s murder. He was placed in jail. He was convicted during a lightning fast trial and sentenced to death. Remember, this is a 14 year-old kid. This isn’t Texas, this is Canada. The really astonishing thing from our point-of-view was how weak the case was against him. The prosecution had virtually no physical evidence tying him to the crime: they didn’t find any fingerprints, foot prints, hair fibres or clothing from Truscott at the crime scene. He was convicted entirely with circumstantial evidence, even though there were several more likely suspects in the community—adult sex offenders with a known predilection for young girls.
Truscott’s sentence was commuted to life in prison. There was enough public outcry about the trial to convince Ottawa to order the Supreme Court to review his conviction, which they did in 1966-67. The Court reaffirmed his guilt, but a lot of people still felt this was a miscarriage of justice. Truscott was paroled in 1969, married a supporter who had communicated with him in jail, and set out to start a new life with a new name. He primarily worked as a millwright in Guelph, Ontario.
Starting about 15 years ago, you began having cases where DNA was used to clear convicted murderers. There were two men—David Milgaard and Guy Paul Morin—who were freed when DNA testing proved their innocence. Truscott decided the time had come to clear his name (according to his record, he was still a convicted murderer). Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, DNA couldn’t be used to clear Truscott. No matter. He fought on and the federal government listened. The Ontario Court of Appeal was instructed to look into Truscott’s case. A review was done and the court concluded what a lot of people already felt—that Truscott’s trial had been a travesty of justice. In 2007, the Court of Appeal tossed out Truscott’s conviction and acquitted him of murder.
Q: When editing the material, I was astonished to discover the brutal kangaroo court to which Steven was subjected as a young boy, treatment that today simply would not be considered legal or even correct procedure. Do you think because of the Truscott notoriety laws for the safeguarding of youth came into existence?
NH: I’m not sure if the Truscott case directly led to changes, but certainly nowadays there are a lot more safeguards in place for dealing with young suspects. What’s interesting is that even in 1959, it was standard Ontario police protocol to only interrogate young offenders with one of their parents present. How strictly cops stuck to this guideline is an open question.
Nowadays, conducting an exhaustive interrogation of a juvenile suspect without a parent or lawyer present—much less without video or tape-recording the proceedings—would be unheard of. I think the last point should be emphasized: police didn’t even bother tape-recording their lengthy interrogation of Truscott, or even keeping a complete record of questions and answers.
There were other things that came up too, such as the fact that Crown Attorneys at the time didn’t have to disclose all their evidence to defence counsel at trial. Today, disclosure is an established fact. A Crown Attorney could lose their job if they didn’t reveal a particular piece of evidence to the defence.
Q: Why do you think the entire legal structure capitulated to such an obvious and gross miscarriage of justice? What motive might they have had?
NH: Author Isabel LeBourdais touches on this in her book, The Trial of Steven Truscott. She comments how there is always tension between members of a military base and the community they are in. The community of Clinton was relieved to hear that a RCAF base kid was accused of the crime.
LeBourdais wrote: “It is common knowledge that military or air force stations are not liked by civilians in the area. Clinton was no exception. An Air Force boy had killed an Air Force girl: let the Air Force look after its own. ‘We don’t want anything to do with them’.”
You have to remember the times too. People were much more in awe of authority in the late 1950s than today. So, the public—and the jury—would be much more inclined to believe the cops and lawyers and medical experts who all claimed Truscott was guilty. I think a modern jury would be much more skeptical, particularly a big-city jury. Today, people don’t automatically buy everything a doctor, or a cop or a lawyer tells them. Back in Truscott’s era, the assumption was, if someone had their day in court and was found guilty, that was that. They were obviously guilty. The notion that police could make a mistake and arrest the wrong guy was just unthinkable.
Also remember the times: a sex murder of an under-age girl was a very, very shocking crime for the era (1959) and place (small-town, rural Ontario). People wanted “closure” in the case as soon as possible. They didn’t like the idea of a suspect running free in their midst.
Q: Unlike David Milgaard and Guy Paul Morin, Steven Truscott’s case was unable to use DNA as proof of innocence. Can you tell us why?
NH: Two reasons. None of the physical evidence in the case—such as Harper’s clothing—was saved. When officials from the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted investigated, they discovered that authorities had tossed out all the key evidence that might have contained DNA traces. The body of Lynne Harper was exhumed, but it was apparently too deteriorated to give up any useable DNA.
The lack of DNA evidence is a real tragedy. Had authorities in 1959 been able to gather and use DNA evidence, they could have determined Truscott’s innocence or guilt once and for all. This lack of DNA evidence was the reason the Ontario Court of Appeal couldn’t issue a verdict of “factually innocent”—i.e. a ruling that there was virtually no possibility Truscott murdered Lynne Harper. The Court had to settle for “acquittal”—meaning, there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him. It would have been much nicer if DNA evidence was available to completely, 100% exonerate him.
Q: There is a segment of the population that feels the cash settlement that was made to Steven Truscott was unfair. Can you comment on that?
NH: I think Truscott completely deserved the compensation. There is, however, always the impression that the state is “buying off” someone when they give compensation for wrongful convictions. It leads to whispers that things couldn’t be all that bad for Truscott, given that he’s now a millionaire. You know—forget the years of horror he went through, and having a criminal record as a murderer.
Q: Was there ever any attempt to re-open the murder case of Lynne Harper?
NH: Far as I know, no. Once Truscott was convicted, the police and authorities treated it like case closed. The case couldn’t really be reopened anyway, because all the physical evidence in the case—such as the clothing Harper was wearing, has been destroyed.
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