Justice minister to announce Truscott decision

Oct. 27, 2004


OTTAWA On a warm June evening in 1959, two kids rode a bicycle down a lonesome county road in southwestern Ontario.

One never came home. The other embarked on a legal odyssey that still haunts Canadians 45 years later.

Twelve-year-old Lynne Harper was found in a woodlot near Clinton, Ont., two days after that fateful bike ride. She had been raped and strangled.

Steven Truscott, 14, a popular athlete and Lynne's schoolmate, was arrested the next day. He was charged with murder after a single night of questioning and later convicted.

Tomorrow, Justice Minister Irwin Cotler will announce whether the case should be reconsidered in light of shoddy police work and suppressed evidence cited by Truscott's lawyers.

Cotler received an 800-page review of the case from former Quebec Court of Appeal judge Fred Kaufman last summer.

Police didn't believe Truscott when he said he'd given Lynne a ride up to Highway 8 and watched while she hopped into a passing car.

The girl's family initially thought it quite likely that she'd hitchhiked the short distance to her grandmother's place a key detail that wasn't presented at trial. Instead, the Crown argued that Lynne was not the sort to take a ride with a stranger.

The defence never learned that a witness who knew Truscott and Lynne had told police she saw them bicycle well past the tractor path where Lynne's body was found. The witness account was detailed enough to describe their clothing.

Perhaps most disturbing, a pathologist who said the time of Lynne's death coincided with the half-hour that Truscott and she were together later changed his story. In 1966, the now-deceased pathologist wrote in an article for a scientific journal that Lynne could have died a full day after she disappeared.

The Supreme Court of Canada, which upheld the Truscott verdict in 1967, didn't learn of that crucial shift.

Those and other gaps are outlined in two books about the case by authors Isabel LeBourdais and Julian Sher.

Except for Truscott, no other suspects were seriously pursued even though hundreds of transient men, including several sex offenders, worked at a nearby military base.

Truscott was condemned to die by hanging in 1959, a sentence commuted to life in prison after he'd spent four months on death row.

He has always said he is innocent.

"I want my name back, I want closure," Truscott told a packed news conference in 2001. "My friends all know that I'm innocent. I want to set the record straight."

Cotler can dismiss Truscott's application thereby upholding his conviction order a new trial, or refer the case to an appeal court.

Conservative Deputy Leader Peter MacKay, a former Crown attorney, says Truscott has had to wait too long. "I'm very hopeful that this is going to result in a full exoneration."

MacKay hopes Cotler will send the case back to the courtroom in Goderich where Truscott was convicted.

A provincial Crown attorney could then "do the right thing and simply offer no evidence which will, from a legal standpoint, effectively erase any criminal conviction for Mr. Truscott," MacKay said.

"And that will allow him to get on with his life."

It's too early to discuss compensation, MacKay added.

"Mr. Truscott, any time I've spoken to him, has never even brought up the subject."

The Truscott family declined through their lawyer to be interviewed as the last hours of a long, agonizing wait tick down.

Joyce Milgaard knows better than most what they're going through.

"My heart just goes out to them," she said in a telephone interview from Winnipeg.

Milgaard's son, David, spent 23 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit before DNA evidence finally cleared him in 1997.

"He's virtually been in prison for 45 years," she said of Truscott.

Truscott was released on parole in 1969 at the age of 24.

Corrections officials said he was a model prisoner who simply didn't fit the criminal mould.

Truscott met and married his wife, Marlene, in 1970 and the couple moved to nearby Guelph, where they lived as Steve and Marlene Bowers Steven's mother's maiden name.

The family lived in assumed anonymity, not able to openly associate with Truscott's relatives or attend family functions.

They raised three children. Truscott has spent most of his working life as a millwright in the same Guelph factory, a trade he learned in jail at Collins Bay Penitentiary.

In 2000, his children grown, Truscott reclaimed his identity to plead for justice in a CBC documentary.

Fellow factory workers and neighbours have joined thousands of other Canadians in recent campaigns to clear his name.

Lawyers with the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted filed a thick legal brief in November 2001 asking the federal Justice Department to review his case.

They cited flawed pathology, shoddy police work and said evidence was suppressed at Truscott's 1959 trial that backed up his claim of innocence. Police tunnel vision coupled with the desperate search for a culprit helped corner a scared teenager, they argued.