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Steven Truscott Essay

At the age of 14, ​Steven Truscott was wrongly convicted of killing his 12-year-old schoolmate Lynne Harper. Five decades later he was exonerated.

Steven Murray Truscott was a popular, athletic teenager who lived with his parents in the southwestern Ontario town of Clinton. In 1959, at the age of 14, he was wrongly convicted of killing his 12-year-old schoolmate Lynne Harper. Not until five decades later was he finally exonerated.

Lynne Harper Murder

On the evening of 9 June 1959 several witnesses saw Steven Truscott cycling with Lynne Harper through the countryside — Truscott carrying her on the handlebars of his bicycle. Two days later, the girl’s remains were found just off a tractor trail in a lightly wooded area known as Lawson's Bush, on the outskirts of Clinton.

Truscott became an immediate suspect. Questioned by police, he maintained that he had given the girl a lift to a highway intersection approximately a kilometre west of town, where some believe Lynne intended to hitch a ride to her grandmother’s home in a nearby community. Police found details of his account deceptive and promptly arrested Truscott for murder.

With a population of just 3,500, Clinton — located near Lake Huron about 200 km west of Toronto — was divided evenly between long-time local residents and military families who worked at Canadian Forces Base Clinton, a nearby radar-training base. Both the Truscott and Harper families belonged to the military community.

Steven Truscott, born in Vancouver on 18 January 1945, was the son of a non-commissioned air force officer, Dan, and his wife Doris. They had arrived in Clinton in 1956, a year before the Harper family was transferred there.

The abduction and murder traumatized the community to a point where Truscott was denied bail. The Crown also succeeded in having his upcoming trial transferred to adult court, ensuring that Truscott could be potentially sentenced to either life imprisonment or execution.

Trial and Conviction

Truscott’s jury trial consumed 15 days. The prosecution case was based on an assertion that Harper was a cautious girl who did not hitchhike. It alleged that Truscott sexually assaulted Harper, strangled her with her blouse and then arranged a few tree branches to partially cover her remains.

The prosecution highlighted a series of seemingly inconsistent statements Truscott had made in his statements to police, as well as the existence of a mysterious abrasion on his penis. It also questioned why Truscott did not reveal until at least a day after Harper disappeared that he had seen her get into a Chevrolet at the spot where her left her on Highway 8. Finally, it cited evidence that fresh bicycle tire tracks were found leading along the tractor path to the body site.

Mr. Truscott’s defence lawyer, Frank Donnelly, maintained that the victim dismounted from Mr. Truscott’s handlebars hundreds of metres past the entrance to the tractor trail where her body had been found, making it most unlikely that he had taken her all the way back to the tractor trail site in order to kill her.

Truscott repeated his assertion to police that he had seen Lynne picked up by a 1959 Chevrolet with an out-of-province licence plate.

Timing was critical to the case. Pathologist John Penistan, who conducted an autopsy of the victim, testified that her half-digested stomach contents revealed that Lynne had died between 7:15 p.m. –7:45 p.m. This narrow window of opportunity proved to be damning evidence against Truscott, since it was certain that he had been with her during that time. The brief window also lessened the possibility of a stranger having picked Lynne up on the highway and driven her back across the bridge toward the tractor path where she died.

The trial featured a good deal of testimony from children who had been playing under the bridge that evening and saw Truscott with Harper. Both the Crown and defence used the children's accounts to bolster their own contentions about the timing of events.

Truscott was found guilty on 30 September 1959. His conviction and the imposition of a death sentence caused a significant public clamour. A year later, the federal government commuted his sentence to life imprisonment with a 10-year parole eligibility period. Truscott’s subsequent appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada was rejected.

Truscott Paroled

In 1966, a book by Isabel LeBourdais stirred up controversy anew. The Trial of Steven Truscott made a detailed case for the young man having been railroaded by careless police officers and a vindictive prosecution. LeBourdais was particularly critical of Dr. Penistan’s conclusions, and of apparent discrepancies with the evidence gathered by Ontario Provincial Police investigators. She was also critical of the manner in which statements from underage witnesses were obtained and used by the Crown.

A special reference to the Supreme Court of Canada led to the case being re-examined in 1966; however, the Supreme Court ruled that his case had been justly decided.

Truscott was paroled in 1969 and disappeared into anonymity. For almost 30 years, he lived under the media radar in Guelph, Ontario. His identity was known only to some members of the community and to his co-workers at a company where Truscott was employed as a millwright. To the outside world, he was known only by his assumed name, Steven Bowers.

AIDWYC Investigates

Under Section 690 of the Criminal Code, Truscott could apply to have his conviction reviewed and potentially referred for a retrial. First, however, the Department of Justice had to be satisfied that fresh evidence in the case could affect the outcome of his trial.

Lawyers from the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC) dug into the background of the case, eventually obtaining 3,000 pages of material not before disclosed to the defence. The group drafted a 700-page brief that raised multiple instances of evidence that, according to AIDWYC, hadn't been adequately investigated or had been improperly suppressed.

At the same time, AIDWYC lawyers worked with the CBC program The Fifth Estate to stoke public interest about the long-ago case. A producer at the program, Julian Sher, also produced a book, Until You Are Dead, arguing for Truscott’s innocence.

The thrust of the fresh evidence was that the Crown had suppressed information from children that could have been used by the defence to confirm Truscott’s claim that he rode across the bridge and left Harper at Highway 8.

The defence had also obtained a previously undisclosed police report showing that the bicycle tire tracks on the tractor trail were likely to have been left there at least a week before Harper was killed, rendering them meaningless as evidence.

Pathologist's Letter

Perhaps the most significant new evidence was the discovery of a letter Dr. Penistan had written in 1966 to the lead police investigator in the case, Harold Graham. Sent on the eve of the 1966 Supreme Court of Canada appeal, Penistan admitted in the letter that he had made an “agonizing reappraisal” of his testimony at the Truscott trial and concluded that he should not have supplied such a narrow window-of-time opportunity.

The letter had never been disclosed to the defence.

A final item of undisclosed evidence involved an elderly couple who had told investigators soon after the murder that they had spotted a young girl hitchhiking, around the spot Truscott claimed to have left Harper that night, at roughly the time she disappeared.

Truscott’s lawyers put forward an alternative suspect in the murder — a one-time air force sergeant named Alexander Kalichuk, who had been transferred away from Clinton two years before the Harper murder but had maintained links with the community. Kalichuk had been arrested in St. Thomas, Ontario, three weeks prior to the Harper murder, for attempting to lure a young girl into his car.

The failure to disclose evidence that was potentially favourable to Truscott was not illegal under rules and conventions existing at the time. However, much had changed in the years since then. The Supreme Court of Canada, in a landmark 1991 case known as R v Stinchcombe, had ruled that there was a constitutional obligation on the part of the state to disclose potentially relevant evidence to a defendant.

Appeal and Acquittal

In 2002, the federal government appointed retired Québec Court of Appeal Justice Fred Kaufman to review Truscott’s Section 690 application. Kaufman, who had earlier presided over an inquiry into the wrongful conviction of Guy Paul Morin, recommended that the Ontario Court of Appeal reopen the Truscott case to permit a full appeal. The federal minister of justice agreed.

A special five-judge panel of the Court of Appeal began hearing the fresh evidence in mid-2006. A year later, it acquitted Truscott outright, in part because it said a fair retrial would be impossible so many years after the fact.

In media interviews, Truscott recalled waking up every morning of his initial period behind bars wondering if he would be executed before the day was out. He also said that he had been drugged with LSD and truth serum during his incarceration by authorities in the hope that it would induce him to confess.

“I’m not bitter,” Truscott told journalists. “You can’t live day after day being bitter . . . I’ve moved on with my life. My wife and I raised a family. I was always taught to look at things positively.”

Meanwhile, Lynne Harper's father maintained that he and other close family members were skeptical of Truscott's innocence.

Truscott continues to live in Guelph with his wife, Marlene. He was awarded $6.5 million in compensation by the Ontario government in 2008, part of which Truscott used to launch the Truscott Initiative in Justice Studies at the University of Guelph, funding two scholarships for students in the field.

See also: Truscott's Quest for Vindication Continues.

Suggested Reading

  • Nate Hendley, Steven Truscott: Decades of Injustice (2012).

    Julian Sher, "Until You Are Dead:" Steven Truscott's Long Ride Into History (2002).

    Isabel LeBourdais, The Trial of Steven Truscott (1966).

In September 1959 in a Canadian courtroom, 14-year-old Steven Truscott was found guilty of raping and murdering his classmate 12-year-old Lynne Harper. Sentenced to death Truscott became the youngest person to sit on Canada's death row. His death sentence was eventually commuted to life in prison. Throughout the years, Truscott has maintained his innocence. He claims that on June 9, 1959, he was riding his bicycle when he met Lynne Harper near the school they both attended. She asked him for a ride to the highway because she wanted to see a man who had some ponies at his house. Truscott gave Harper a lift and dropped her off at the highway. As he was cycling back to the school he saw a car stop where Harper was standing. She got into the car and the car drove off. That was the last time Lynne Harper was seen alive. Her body was found two days later not too far from where Truscott dropped her off.

In 1969 after serving ten years in prison, Truscott was paroled. He took on an alias and maintained a private life for thirty plus years. Recently Truscott has made a public appeal in the hope that his case will be reopened. In April 2000, he participated in TV program that re-examined the case. Many people feel he was railroaded in 1959, and the evidence which would have vindicated him was overlooked.

Since the crime occurred over 40 years ago, it becomes difficult to sort through all of the facts. Some of the evidence has been destroyed. Some of the people involved in the investigation are no longer living. However, there is one document we can review which is a very good source of information as to what happened on that June evening in 1959. In 1971, Pocket Book published "The Steven Truscott Story" by Steven Truscott as told to Bill Trent. Let's see what Truscott has to say about the death of Lynne Harper.

Page 3 "I gave her a lift on my bicycle."

Page 8 "She wanted a lift to the highway and I gave it to her."

Page 16 "I hardly knew the girl, I kept trying to tell them. We were classmates but she was not among my friends. What she did outside school (and inside it, too, for that matter) had never interested me."

Truscott down plays his relationship with Lynne Harper. Twice he states that he was just giving her a "lift." He further distances himself from her when he says "I hardly knew the girl" and "she was not among my friends." However, Truscott does not tell us that he and Lynne Harper were not friends. They may have been friends just not close friends. He continually tells the police this ("I kept trying to tell them") because it is probably true they were not best friends. However, we have to question the distance he is creating when we look at a statement he made towards the end of his book.

Page 139 "The first knowledge I had that something unusual had happened to Lynne was the morning after our bicycle ride."

By using the pronoun "our" the bicycle ride now becomes more personal than just giving her a lift. He could have stated, "The first knowledge I had that something unusual had happened to Lynne was the morning after I had given her a ride." By describing it as "our bicycle ride" he is telling us this ride meant something to him and perhaps to her. Emotionally there was more going on than just giving her a lift to the highway. That does not mean Truscott killed her. However, there is a reason why he referred to the bike ride as "our bicycle ride" and not "I gave her a ride."

Page 8 "I arrived home about 5:30. Supper was late and Mom asked me to go to the store for coffee. I would have to hurry because it closed at six. When I returned, the meal was ready. Between seven and 7:15, I went to the side of the house and got my bicycle. Mom called out to me to be sure to be back by 8:30 because she and Dad were going out and wanted me to baby-sit with Bill and Barb."

Truscott tells us what he did on the night Lynne Harper was murdered. Since he is describing an event that had occurred over ten years ago, he speaks in the past tense. "I arrived...I returned...I went...Mom called..." However, in this paragraph there is one sentence that is not in the past tense. In talking about going to the store for coffee, he states "I would have to hurry because it closed at six." In this statement, he is not telling us that he did hurry. He is only stating that he should hurry. Had he said, "I hurried because it closed at six" we can then believe that he did hurry to the store. This change in tenses shows us that something else besides going to the store was happening between 5:30 and 6:00.

Page 36 "Then Crown called what it considered its key witness, a 13-year-old girl named Jocelyne Godette who was also in my class, and her testimony really infuriated me. She testified that early on the day of the murder I had made a date with her to look for newborn calves in Lawson's bush. She said further that between 5:30 and six that day, I had gone to her house to collect her but, not having had supper, she was unable to accompany me. She was saying that I wanted to go to the very place where they found Lynne Harper. And at the time she placed me at her house, I was actually buying coffee for my mother."

Now we know what else was going on between 5:30 and 6:00.

Page 8 - 9 "I rode to the school where I met a group of Brownies. After, I followed the county road to the bridge, stopping briefly here and there. I went back to the school then, where I met Lynne. We chatted a while about - Well, who remembers what we talked about? She was in a chatty mood and did most of the talking."

The word "after" tells us that Truscot skipped over something in his story. We would want to find out what happened when he met the Brownies.

"We chatted a while about - Well, who remembers what we talked about? She was in a chatty mood and did most of the talking." Truscott starts to tell us what he and Lynne Harper talked about, but then he changes his mind and chooses not to reveal this information. He does not tell us that he doesn't remember their conversation. He only alludes to having a memory loss by stating, "Well, who remembers what we talked about?" Obviously no one else remembers because no one else was present at their meeting. The fact that Truscott asks a question in the middle of his statement shows us that something is on his mind and he is choosing his words carefully. Since he may have been the last person to see Lynne Harper alive, what they discussed just prior to her death may be very important.

Page 9 "Then she said she wanted to see the ponies and asked if I would take her to the intersection. I agreed and we pushed the bicycle between us across the school grounds to the county road. There I got on the seat and she mounted the crossbar and we took off. The time? Probably between 7:30 and 7:45.... I took her to the highway, turned around and rode slowly back toward the school. At the bridge I paused to watch the kids swimming and, from that vantage point, I saw Lynne get into the car. I rode on, stopping at the football field for a few minutes. There, some boys were playing a noisy game of touch rugby."

Truscott states "we pushed the bicycle between us." The pronouns "we" and "us" always indicates there is a partnership. We don't know how much of a partnership but it does mean there is a connection between the two of them. All we know for sure is the partnership consisted of pushing the bike across the school grounds and riding the bike together.

Again Truscott asks a question of himself ("The time?") in the middle of his statement. The time of day that he and Lynne Harper went for a bike ride is sensitive to him. This is because the coroner established the time of her death about the same time Truscott was with her.

Truscott says that he "took her to the highway, turned around and rode slowly back toward the school." We cannot believe something happened if the person doesn't tell us it happened. We cannot take things for granted. Truscott says that he took her to the highway. Therefore, we can believe they rode his bike together to the highway. He further states that he turned around and went back. This too we can believe. What he doesn't tell us is that he dropped Lynne Harper off at the highway. We would expect him to say that she got off the bike and they had a conversation. Perhaps he asked her if she would be all right or where the house was with the ponies. Then he turns around and heads back. However, he makes no mention of doing this. He may have dropped Lynne Harper off, but there is a very good chance he did not drop her off at the highway.

The article "a" is used to identify something or someone that has not yet been recognized in the statement. The article "the" is used once the item or person has been identified in the story. For example, "He pulled a gun out of his pocket. He placed the gun to my head." Once the gun has been introduced (a gun) the writer then shifts to calling it "the gun." Truscott tells us that he saw Lynne get into "the car." Since this the first time he saw this car, he should have said "I saw Lynne get into a car." By using the article "the" it tells us that either Truscott recognized the car or he is making up the story. Some would say that this car has been talked about for over 40 years. Therefore, it has been recognized and it is proper for Truscott to refer to it as "the car." The problem is every time he tells his story he is supposed to be telling it the way he saw it on the day Lynne disappeared. That means when he first talks about the car in his story he should give it a proper introduction.

Page 49 "Everyday, reporters sat in court and mixed with the spectators in the hall after each session. I suppose that this was when they received the impressions recorded after the trial. One reporter referred to me as a 'cool customer', and another, as 'clever and devious.'... As to 'clever and devious', had I intended to rape and murder Lynne Harper, would I not, rather have been stupid beyond belief, to drive my victim, minutes prior to killing her, past innumerable witnesses? This fact occurred to no one, not even my counsel."

Truscott says that if he "intended" to kill Lynne Harper, he would not have been so stupid to drive her past a bunch of witnesses. Perhaps it was not his intention to kill her. More importantly we have Truscott confessing to murdering Lynne Harper. He does not state that he drove her or that he drove the victim. He tells us that he drove "my victim." Pronouns give us responsibility. By using the pronoun "my" he takes possession of the victim. That was his counsel ("my counsel") and that was his victim ("my victim").

Some would argue that the co-author Bill Trent may have inserted the language "my victim." When a book is co-authored we do have to take into consideration who is actually speaking. We know that Bill Trent did not kill Lynne Harper. Therefore, if Trent wrote this statement he most likely would have written "the victim." If Trent was responsible for writing "my victim," it tells us that he, Bill Trent, believes Truscott is guilty.

Page 54 - 55 "This was the first news I received that a stay of execution had been ordered. I often wonder when I would have been told, had it not been for that guard. I was dazed and it was some time before the full significance of what had occurred got through to me. I wasn't going to die! Hastily, I qualified my jubilance. I wasn't going to die as soon as I'd expected. But Pop used to say, 'Where there's life there's hope', and I was alive! Perhaps there would be yet another miracle "an appeal, a new trial, even an acquittal."

One of the things you want to look for in a statement is what hasn't the person told you. After receiving his stay of execution, Truscott hopes for another miracle. He then lists three things he would like to see happen: "an appeal, a new trial, even an acquittal." "An appeal" would allow new evidence to be presented which may lead to a "new trial." He is then hopeful a new trial would win him his freedom - "an acquittal." However, what is Truscott not telling us? If you were an innocent person sitting on death row, what would be the greatest miracle of all that would give you your freedom? It would of course be that the person who killed Lynne Harper was caught and confessed to the murder. You would be set free and completely exonerated. That is much better than receiving a new trial and being acquitted. Yet Truscott never asks for that. It never crosses his mind that the best thing for him would be for the killer to be found. To him, this isn't an option because he knows he killed Lynne Harper. Even today the Truscott camp talks about a new trial and acquittal. I have never heard them talk about the real killer coming forward.

Page 105 "In August 1964, a little more that five years after my arrest, it (the Parole Board) had sent me a notice in the mail informing me that I was eligible for parole and saying that I could apply for one on a form available through the classification department of the penitentiary. I secured a form, filled it out, and in desperation to gain my freedom, did something very stupid. In the space reserved for my personal comments, I wrote that if I were released I would not be in trouble again. By this I meant that I would not be in trouble period. But I had been thinking in terms of all those people who believed me guilty and, since I knew they took my guilt for granted, I wrote the word 'again'."

Truscott explains to us that he used the word "again" on his parole application form because he was "thinking in terms of all those people who believed me guilty." However, we must remember that people's words will betray them. It is also possible that since he knew he was a killer, this is why he stated he would not get into trouble "again."

When Truscott says "my guilt" whose guilt is he talking about? He of course is talking about his own guilt. This is a type of admission. He could have said, "But I had been thinking in terms of all those people who believed me guilty and, since I knew they thought I was guilty, I wrote the word again." In this statement, other people believe Truscott is guilty. This is how most innocent people would say it. In Truscott's statement, it sounds as if he is talking about something he has already established - "my guilt."

When we analyze Truscott's story, we see there is plenty of reason to believe he committed this crime. I receive a lot of e-mails about this case usually from people who believe Truscott is innocent. Remember, I do not analyze the physical evidence because I am not trying to solve this case. I read the guy's book and this is what I see. Steven Truscott by his own admission ("my victim") ("my guilt") tells us that he killed Lynne Harper. His language ("we" and "us") shows us that he had some type of relationship with her. He withholds information from us ("Well, who remembers what we talked about?") and it never occurs to him that the real killer may some day be found.

Just like we have to consider the physical evidence, we also have to consider his statements. People like to blame it on the grammar but that does not account for everything in his statements. Some like to say "but this is what he meant." However, the truth is, people mean exactly what they say.

Read Robert Collings well thought out reflections on the book .

Update

On August 28, 2007, the Ontario Court of Appeals acquitted Steven Truscott of the 1959 killing of Lynne Harper. What the court did not do was declare him innocent of this crime. His defense team had asked the court for a declaration of innocence. The court ruled "the appellant (Truscott) has not demonstrated his factual innocence. At this time, and on the totality of the record, we are in no position to make a declaration of innocence." Normally the case would be retried but the court also ruled that with the passing of time some witnesses and evidence were no longer available making it difficult to have a second trial.

Upon hearing of his acquittal, the CanWest News Service quoted Truscott as saying "I never in my wildest dreams expected in my lifetime for this to come true. So this is a dream come true." This is an odd statement for an innocent person to make. Some would say that since Truscott has been viewed as being guilty for so many years, he never thought he would live to see his acquittal. My experience has been that a person who knows he did not commit the crime will always have a hope or dream that he will one day be exonerated. Truscott's statement seems to be in line with what he said over 45 years ago when he was convicted of this murder and then received a stay of execution. In hoping for another miracle, Truscott did not hope the killer would be found. He only hoped for "an appeal, a new trial, even an acquittal." Well, he got his acquittal and rightly so did not get his declaration of innocence.