The Trial of Steven Truscott

The time and place: 1959; Clinton, Ontario, Canada. The crime: the rape and murder of a 12 year old girl. The Suspect: a 14 year old boy, one of the victim’s classmates. The story of Steven Truscott and the crime he was convicted of committing was shocking when it happened nearly 50 years ago, but even as recent of February 2007, this case has been making headlines in Canadian news. This case could have been a contributing factor to the shaping of the Canadian criminal code, specifically the juvenile system and the death penalty. The details of the case must be explored to better understand the impact it made in Canada, and how it has continued to affect the life of Steven Truscott.

On the evening of June 9, 1959, 14-year-old Steven Truscott gave one of his classmates, Lynn Harper, 12, a ride near the Air Base in Clinton, Ontario. According to Truscott, after he dropped her off, he rode away, but “saw as car stop where Harper was standing. She got in the car and the car drove off (McClish).” Two days later, Harper’s body was found in some bushes by the base. She had been raped, and then strangled. Thought to be the last person to see her alive, Truscott immediately became the prime suspect in her murder investigation. By the 12th of June, the day after her body was found; Truscott was arrested and taken into custody. On the 13th, he was charged with her murder (CBC News). No other suspects were ever seriously considered.

As far as suspects go, there were a few others that were overlooked. There were several thousand service men living on the airbase, many were young and single. There was one 18 year old man that was questioned by the police. He “claimed to have seen the girl the night she disappeared around 6:30 pm in the town of Clinton (CBC News).” This statement was inconsistent with the fact that Harper never left the base, but he was also able to recall the fact that she was wearing blue shorts.” He was cleared from suspicion by his girlfriend who said that he was with her for most of the evening. According to police notes, there is no indication that any further investigation was done.

Another possible suspect was Sgt. Alexander Kalichuk. He was a convicted sexual predator. He was a “heavy drinker with a history of sexual offenses (CBC News).” He worked as a supply technician at the Clinton base, where Lynn Harper’s father was the senior supply officer. He transferred to a base in Aylmer, about a one hour drive away, but still made frequent trips back to Clinton. Three weeks before Harper’s body was found, Kalichuk attempted to lure a 10-year old girl to his car, but stopped when her father approached. He was arrested by the OPP and charged. A judge dismissed the charge due to lack of evidence, but the judge did give Kalichuk a warning that he, and the police, knew what he was “up to.” On the day of Harper’s murder, he was reportedly involved in an incident of indecent exposure just a few miles away from the Clinton base. It is also believed that the car Truscott claimed to have seen Harper get in to may have belonged to Kalichuk. Sgt. Kalichuk “drank himself to death in 1975 (CBC News).” The police refuse to say whether or not an investigation was ever conducted to link him to Harper’s murder.

There were 2 other witnesses that claim to have seen evidence indicating that a car may have been present at the site where Harper’s body was found. George Edens was the man that found Harper’s body. He claimed that “going up you could see skid marks. Just up to the pavement, it was only maybe three or four feet long (CBC News).” Another man, Bob Lawson, had property near that site. He was suspicious because he had never seen a car parked there in the past. He reported it to the authorities after Harper’s body had been found, but the police already had Truscott in custody. In his statement to The Fifth Estate, Lawson said “They didn’t take it very serious. He said I think they’ve, I think they’ve already picked somebody up. They didn’t want to hear anything else.” From this statement, it seems to me like the police didn’t care to even consider anyone other than Truscott as the person who committed this crime.

Other than Truscott’s statement that he gave Harper a ride that night, there was another piece of evidence that placed Truscott at the scene. There were bicycle tracks similar to that of Steven’s bicycle. According to Bob Lawson, they were experiencing dry weather at the time, so there really was no way the tracks could have been made that month. This did not stop police from drawing the conclusion that Truscott had to be the one that raped and murdered young Harper.

During the investigation, many young children had been questing regarding Truscott’s alibi. Police wanted to know how many of them had seen Truscott and Harper together. Among these interviews were: Phillip Burns, a 10 year old boy that was concluded to be at the scene too early, and couldn’t have seen them there; Jocelyn Gaudet, who was supposed to meet Truscott (in the same bush where Harper was found) for a secret date; and Gord Logan, Truscott’s friend who was said to have made up his testimony to protect Truscott’s alibi. These testimonies may have been crucial evidence in convicting Truscott.

After all the evidence was gathered, Truscott was taken to trial. Other than the old bicycle track, there was one critical piece of evidence that possibly pointed to Truscott as the killer. From what I would assume, there were probably not as many scientific tools available in 1959 as there is today, but the medical examiner was said to have been able to pinpoint the murder with remarkable precision. Relying mainly on the analysis of Lynn’s stomach contents he placed the time of death precisely in the half-hour window between 7:15 pm and 7:45 pm — an astonishing precision even with the forensic tools available today (CBC News).

This was a crucial piece of evidence due to the fact that Truscott admitted in a statement that he and Harper were riding on his bicycle at that same time. “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 (McClish).” According to the jury, this must have been enough evidence. On December 8, 1959, a jury found Truscott guilty of the murder, and was sentenced to death. The trial only lasted 15 days. Truscott was the youngest Canadian ever to be sentenced to death. Due to the building controversy of his harsh sentencing, the conservative Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker, commuted Truscott’s sentence to life in prison.

After Truscott’s sentencing, there were a lot of citizens that spoke out about the incident. An extremely powerful poem was written by Pierre Berton. It questions the decision for capital punishment of a minor child and why there is a need for it in general. It is on the following page.
In Goderich town
The Sun abates
December is coming
And everyone waits:
In a small, dark room
On a small, hard bed
Lies a small, pale boy
Who is not quite dead.
The cell is lonely
The cell is cold
October is young
But the boy is old;
Too old to cringe
And too old to cry
Though young —
But never too young to die.
It’s true enough
That we cannot brag
Of a national anthem
Or a national flag
And though our Vision
Is still in doubt
At last we’ve something to boast about:
We’ve a national law
In the name of the Queen
To hang a child
Who is just fourteen.
The law is clear:
It says we must
And in this country
The law is just
Sing heigh! Sing ho!
For justice blind
Makes no distinction
Of any kind;
Makes no allowances for sex or years,
A judge’s feelings, a mother’s tears;
Makes no allowances for age or youth
Just eye for eye and tooth for tooth
Tooth for tooth and eye for eye:
A child does murder
A child must die.
Don’t fret … don’t worry …
No need to cry
We’ll only pretend he’s going to die;
We’re going to reprieve him
Bye and bye.
We’re going to reprieve him
(We always do),
But it wouldn’t be fair
If we told him, too
So we’ll keep the secret
As long as we can
And hope that he’ll take it
Like a man.
And when we’ve told him
It’s just “pretend”
And he won’t be strung
At a noose’s end,
We’ll send him away
And, like as not
Put him in prison
And let him rot.
The jury said “mercy”
And we agree —
O, merciful jury:
You and me.
Oh death can come
And death can go
Some deaths are sudden
And some are slow;
In a small cold cell
In October mild
Death comes each day
To a frightened child.
So muffle the drums and beat them slow,
Mute the strings and play them low,
Sing a lament and sing it well,
But not for the boy in the cold, dark cell,
Not for the parents, trembling-lipped,
Not for the judge who followed the script;
Save your prayers for the righteous ghouls
In that Higher Court who write the rules
For judge and jury and hangman too:
The Court composed of me and you.
In Goderich town
The trees turn red

The limbs go bare
As their leave are bled
And the days tick by
As the sky turns lead
For the small, scared boy
On the small, stark bed
A fourteen-year-old
Who is not quite dead.

Could this have been something that caused the Canadian government to review the need for capital punishment? Probably not, but I am sure his voice was heard and that he still made an impact.
I believe, in order to better understand the conviction and sentencing of Truscott, one must first have some understanding of the history of the Canadian juvenile justice system, as well as information on the use of capital punishment in Canada. The following information came from the Canada Department of Justice website.

Throughout the 1800s, there really was no separate justice system in Canada for juvenile offenders. They were sentenced to prisons and served the same sentences as adults. Small changes were starting to take place at the end of the 19th Century. In some of the provinces, industrial, or remedial, schools were being developed. One of the first major proposals for a separate juvenile system was in 1890 by the Prisoner’s Aid Association of Canada. The following ideas were included in the proposal:
The organization supported a program that included special courts for young offenders, limited use of detention for those under 14, qualified staff for reformatories and industrial schools and the use of indefinite sentences.

Another attempt for reform came from Ontario in 1891. Although it only applied specifically to Ontario, it did have national impact and heightened awareness for the juvenile reform campaign. The Ontario Commission recommended the following:
• every city and large town should have one or more industrial school
• children under 14 should not be publicly arrested and detained
• children under 14, when it is necessary to hold them, should not be detained in a common jail but in a place entirely away from the police station
• all children under 14 should be tried in special courts
• convicted children under 14 should never be incarcerated in a common jail, and should be sent to a reformatory or refuge only as a last resort
• more use should be made of suspended sentences
• a probation system should be introduced
• earned remission for good conduct should be offered
• a parole system should be adopted, as well as apprenticeship programs and boarding out
• an association should be formed in every region of the province for the after-care of released juveniles
• changes in the law should give more power to provincial officials over such things as pardon, parole and the general supervision of delinquent children

These kinds of policies would allow for earlier intervention and a chance to keep children away from adult offenders, where they could possibly be exposed to more criminal behavior.

Although many acts were passed to keep children in separate prisons from adults, the Juvenile Delinquents Act of 1908 still allowed for children over the age of 14 that were accused of murder or treason to be transferred to ordinary courts. This act set the tone in the Canadian Justice system about the next 75 years. While I don’t believe that Truscott’s trial was the only reason the Department of Justice decided to re-evaluate this Act, I do believe that it had a major impact on their decision. Truscott’s conviction and sentence was decided in 1959. It was just one year later, in 1960, that the Department of Justice assembled a committee to study the details of the Act. The final report, issued in 1965, focused on the need for additional action, including equal application of the Act throughout all of Canada, and better training for judges and court officials in handling juvenile offenders. Quebec was the first province to take action after this report was issued. It took steps to be sure all juvenile offenders had access to lawyers.

Many of the standards in the juvenile system were not put in to place until after Truscott was released from prison in 1969, but his case, combined with many other young offenders, paved the road, and caused the Canadian Justice department to examine the way these young people were being punished. The policies began to standardize in the 1980s by enforcing the right to counsel throughout the country, and also allowing the right to appeal a conviction. The minimum age for prosecution was raised to 12 years old. Other changes were made to standardize convictions and sentencing. Detention could not exceed two years, except when the crime would normally be punishable by a life sentence, in which case, the maximum was three years. In the late 1980s, there was an amendment made to increase the penalty for murder. The penalty for first-degree murder was raised to a maximum of 10 years, and second-degree to 7 years. Except for a few other suggestions for special treatment of offenders under the age of 12, these Canada-wide standards have continued to stay in place.

Along with the many changes in the juvenile system, Canada has also seen changes in the Criminal Justice system regarding capital punishment. I believe that Truscott’s case may have also had a small influence on the abolition of the death penalty. There were no major changes with capital punishment from 1869 until 1961, just one year after Truscott’s death sentence was commuted. Legislation was passed in 1961 that reclassified murder into capital and non-capital offenses. This allowed for only capital murder to be punishable by death. In 1967 a bill was passed that placed a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, except in cases involving the murder of a police officer, and in 1976, capital punishment was abolished completely by Canadian Parliament. One of the main reasons was due to the possibility of wrongful convictions, including possibly Truscott’s. There was also an uncertainty as to the effectiveness of the death penalty. The death penalty was replaced with life imprisonment. With no eligibility for parole for 25 years in the case of first-degree murder, and 10-25 years for second degree murder. Even though it was almost 20 years after Truscott’s case, I feel that it still may have been one of the considering factors in lifting capital punishment in Canada.

Steven Truscott was in prison for 7 years when a journalist, Isabel LeBourdais, published a book that questioned his conviction. Her book, “The Story of Steven Truscott,” prompted the Canadian supreme court to examine the case a second time. After “deliberating and reviewing the case, the justices voted 8-1 against giving the young man a new trial (City News).” The one justice that voted for a new trial pointed out many of the original holes that the case had in the first place, stating they should be re-examined, one of which was the time of death. In 1966, years after the trial, the coroner that initially placed time of death between 7:15 and 7:45, corrected himself and said that “All findings are compatible with death within 2 hours of Lynn’s last meal (CBC News).” This opened up the possibility that someone else could have been with Harper in the same timeframe as Truscott. Despite being denied a new trial, and his life sentence, Truscott was still released from prison in 1969. He assumed a new identity, married, and had three children. Truscott insisted, as he does still to this day, that he did not commit the crime, and he remained haunted by the fact he was convicted of the crime even as he was given a chance for a new life.
Truscott remained in hiding for nearly 20 years. I believe one of the main reasons he came out of hiding was because he was consumed with the need to prove himself innocent. In September 1997, Truscott agreed to DNA testing that would possibly exonerate him, but because of the time space, some of the crucial evidence had been destroyed. A few years later, March of 2000, Truscott breaks his silence once again. He decided to go on the CBC News and proclaim his innocence, vowing to do whatever it would take to clear his name. This is what began his crusade, which would last to the present day. Truscott was paired with the Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted (AIDWYC), and in November 2001, they filed an application for a retrial to the Minister of Justice-the person that decides if a new trial should be ordered. The following January, the minister of Justice ruled that an outside agent also needed to review the request. Justice Fred Kaufman was the man appointed for that review. He had been appointed in the past to review wrongful murder conviction cases.
It took a little over two years, but in April 2004, Kaufman presented a 700 page report that confirmed “sufficient new evidence had been found” and “that the Minister of Justice order the Ontario Court of Appeal to hear the case as if it were an appeal of the original conviction (CBC News).” One of his reasons falls back again to the evidence that probably convicted Truscott in the first place…Harper’s time of death. Kaufman stated “modern science has removed the time of death as a piece of circumstantial evidence favouring Truscott’s guilt (CBC News).” In October, the new Minister of Justice, Irwin Cotler, referred the case to the Ontario Court of Appeal for review. Cotler believed that a new trial was necessary.

I have determined that there is a reasonable basis to conclude that a miscarriage of justice occurred in this case…we have a legal – and I believe moral – obligation to see if the new evidence would have affected the verdict.

A few more years go went by before any more major progress was made in the case. In the meantime, Truscott had his 60th birthday, and was still trying to prove his innocence.

In April 2006, two years after Kaufman ordered the appeal, Lynn Harper’s body was exhumed to attempt DNA testing. Because so much time had go by, there was no evidence in her remains salvageable for testing. Finally, in June of 2006, Truscott’s case is heard by the Ontario Court of Appeals. As of January 2007 (yes, that’s this year) the case was still being heard, with three possible outcomes
• dismiss appeal
• order a new trial
• acquittal

The appeal ended on Wednesday February 14th, but the decision lies with the five member panel of judges that heard the case. There were arguments of missing and distorted evidence, the fact that most of the eyewitness testimonies were from young children, whose stories changed from their initial statements to the days of the initial trial (City News). One of Truscott’s lawyers, Hersch Wolch, reminded the panel “behind me sits a 60-year old man who for 80 percent of his life has been branded as a murderer, He can be viewed also as an innocent 14-year old boy sentenced to hang. This court is the only venue for justice now and forever (City News).” This may have been a desperate pull of the heartstrings, but I think he was doing it to stress the fact that this wrong conviction (possibly) has consumed the majority of Truscott’s life, but that it has also affected the lives of Lynn Harper’s family, and the Ontarian public as a whole. As of April, I have not found any word as to the final outcome of Truscott’s crusade to prove his innocence. The end of the article by The City News states “It could take anywhere from several weeks to several months for the judges to render their decision.

I believe this case truly has been an impact in Canadian society. People have been focused on the story of Steven Truscott and Lynn Harper since that day in June of 1959. I believe his case helped spawn the review for a development of a criminal system for Canadian youth. It also may have been one of the factors that lead to the deletion of capital punishment in the Canadian Code. I am going to make a bold statement and say based on the evidence that was originally presented, even with the original time of death proven to be so close to when Truscott said to have left Harper, I would not have been able to make the decision to convict a child of that crime, or sentence him to death. I believe him to be not guilty of the crime he was convicted of, and has spent his entire life trying to prove so. He is still young (as in he probably is not going to die soon), but I still hope that Steven Truscott gets his results back while he still able to enjoy some of his life as an innocent man.

CBC News: The Fifth Estate. “The Steven Truscott Story: Moment of Truth.”
City News. “Steven Truscott Appeal Wraps Up With Lawyers Pleading Convicted Man’s Innocence.” February 14, 2007.
Department of Justice Canada. “The Evolution of the Juvenile Justice System in Canada.”
McClish, Mark. “Statement Analysis: Steven Truscott.”