Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Until You Are Dead

I grew up in south-western Ontario, not far from the town of Clinton. This is solid, stolid olde Ontario, full of quietly prosperous small towns with a Legion hall and streets named after 19th century British worthies. Entirely bucolic. But like a David Lynch film, there was weirdness behind the Victorian façade.

The Steven Truscott case was part of local lore when I was growing up. The story of the seemingly normal 14 year-old who killed 12 year-old Lynne Harper in the woods near Clinton in 1959 was well-known. Truscott was convicted on circumstantial evidence and became the youngest person in Canada ever sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to life in prison in 1960. An appeal in 1960 was denied. Doubts of his guilt grew, and in 1966 the Supreme Court of Canada reviewed the case. After three weeks of testimony the court ruled 8 – 1 against Truscott.

Books helped keep the story alive over the years. Isabel LeBourdais published The Trial of Steven Truscott in 1966. Bill Trent published The Steven Truscott Story in 1971 and Who Killed Lynne Harper? in 1979 (with Truscott’s cooperation). Jack Batten wrote about the problems with the forensic science used in the case in a chapter of his 1995 book Mind Over Murder: DNA and other Forensic Adventures.

Truscott was paroled in 1969. He married, had a family and lived anonymously in Guelph, Ontario until the CBC show, the fifth estate, took on his case. When the Truscott episode aired in 2000 a firestorm of publicity erupted, thanks to the questions raised in the documentary, including more likely suspects and important leads not revealed to the defence. The producer of the documentary, Julian Sher, published “Until you are dead”: Steven Truscott’s Long Ride into History in 2001. Sher’s book details the case’s convoluted history and the many wrong turns over the years: witnesses not called upon, suspects not investigated and important leads not followed.

The TV show and Sher’s book were instrumental in Truscott’s 2001 request to the Department of Justice to consider his case for exoneration. The justice minister then, Irwin Cotler, referred the case to the Ontario Court of Appeal. This court is now deciding whether to grant a new trial, uphold the conviction or exonerate Truscott.

And for the first time, the proceedings of the appeal are being filmed and are available live on the Internet via the CBC website. Quite fascinating viewing.

Novelist Ann-Marie MacDonald spent some of her childhood in Centralia, Ontario, near the events of the Steven Truscott case. She said the Truscott case haunted her (“I grew up with the shadow of that case”) and that the “ordeal of Steven Truscott, his spirit and courage” were the major inspiration for her award-winning novel, The Way the Crow Flies. Using the murder of a young girl and other key elements of the Truscott case, MacDonald tells a compelling story of secrets and lies and the loss of innocence. The quiet world of small town Canada in the early 1960s is beautifully evoked, set against the turbulent Cold War politics of the time.

Canadian icon Alice Munro actually lives in Clinton. She was born in nearby Wingham, and sets many of her stories in Goderich and other area towns. While often her stories lay bare the hidden secrets of small town anywhere, her most recent collection, The View from Castle Rock, is somewhat autobiographical, focusing on her Scottish relatives and the immigrant experience. Her previous collection, Runaway, or going all the way back to her classic quasi-novel Lives of Girls and Women, will give you a taste of seemingly normal small-town Ontario.


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