Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The sleep of the innocent

Twelve hours ago, as I write this, Steven Truscott was, officially, in the eyes of the community, a convicted murderer. Tonight, he is not.

The Ontario Court of Appeal, just before 11 a.m. this morning, published its decision on his case: his 1959 trial was a miscarriage of justice, and that if tried to today, with the evidence available both at the time and subsequently, a jury's reasonable doubt would not allow them to convict. His conviction, therefore, was set aside, and he was acquitted of the murder of Lynne Harper.

This is a remarkable case. Steven Harper was just 14 when he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang for the murder, on June 9, 1959, of 12-year-old Lynne Harper in Goderich, Ontario. In early 1960, Parliament commuted his sentence to life in prison. He was paroled in 1969, was given a new name, married, and had three children. A millwright, he has been a model citizen ever since. In 2000, after talking it over with his family and close friends, he emerged from seclusion, took back his name, and began the fight to clear that name. From the beginning, he has maintained his innocence. For decades, most Canadians have believed in it too. Tonight, it's a matter of law, official, at last. As his wife, Marlene, put it in the fifth estate's ground-breaking 2000 documentary, "Every night he goes to bed as a convicted murderer and every morning he wakes up as a convicted murderer and why should he be?"

Not tonight.

Not tomorrow morning.

When I was 14 myself in the early 80s, I read The Steven Truscott Story, as told by Steven Truscott to Bill Trent. All my life I'll remember sitting in math class, waiting for the teacher to arrive and reading Steven's account of waiting to be hanged the winter of 1959. There was a tree outside his cell, and he played a risk game with himself: if any of the leaves were left on the tree by New Year's, he wouldn't be hanged. Every morning he got up to see how many leaves, "traitors", he called them, had fallen off during the night. I could remember playing such games myself concerning matters beyond my control. I completely identified with him, though I could not then, and cannot now, imagine what it was like for him.

All my life, there has been something just a bit wrong with Canada, just a bit off-kilter, because we all knew in our hearts the man was not guilty, but our country said he was. Something was out of joint. Today, this afternoon while I was driving and listening to Steven Truscott address the public, I felt something had changed about Canada. Something had been put right at last. It was just a little bit new; not the same place I woke up in. That was a subtly powerful feeling.

I confess that I was disappointed that the court acquitted him, but would not go that last couple of inches and declare him innocent. I didn't understand what that entailed. A friend of mine, who is a provincial justice archivist, explained the mechanics of it to me, and I share that now with you…

Truscott has come as close as he can to his goal. While some may see a verdict of "acquitted of all charges" as another way of saying that he was guilty but there was not enough evidence to prove it, the legal definition of the word is very specific (i.e., "To be publicly declared free of a claim of criminal wrongdoing or an imputation of guilt"). He wanted a declaration of innocence from the courts but that could only be issued if there was an accompanying conviction or admission of guilt from the real murder of Lynne Harper -- something which is not going to happen at this late date.

Also, the Ontario Court of Appeal traditionally does not have that power. It hears cases only if there has been a suggestion that an error of evidence or an error of law had occurred during the previous trial. In Truscott's case, they permitted the appeal to be heard due to errors of evidence (the fact that it had already been appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada and the verdict upheld had little bearing as the SCC only deals with errors of law, not of evidence). Indeed, the Ontario Court of Appeal granted Truscott the highly unique privilege of not only reviewing the original evidence but -- rather than ordering a new trial as would be the proper response -- the Appellate Justices reviewed the newly discovered evidence and heard the new witnesses themselves. This happens only a few times every century and requires the permission of both the Attorney General and the Chief Justice.

Either way, a travesty of justice has finally been corrected and the entire sorry affair can be handed to the annals of history and the next flurry of "now it can be revealed" publications.

Good for Truscott for never giving up. He is now the judicial equivalent of Terry Fox.

I told him I agreed; Steven Truscott is a hero, like Terry, except it was given to Steven, as it wasn't to Terry, to see his goal realized while he lives. What Steven Truscott did and endured, he did not just for himself, but for every Canadian who may one day face false accusations, rushed police investigations, harried court officers and an overburdened legal system eager to process cases and move on. No short cuts. They ruin the lives of the innocent, and, what may be worse for us all, let the truly guilty walk free. No one knows for sure who killed Lynne Harper, though there are favourite suspects, but we now know it wasn't Steve.

But that means, after 48 years, it's almost certain her killer got away with it, stealing Steve's good name and taking it with him to the grave.

Until now.

Congratulations, Mr. Truscott, to you, your family, and your supporters. And here's to our country. It grew up a little today.

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