Sunday, May 10, 2009

CANADA - A Crime He Didn't Commit

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05/10/2009

By David J. Krajicek

Fifty years ago, a gawky Canadian boy named Steven Truscott offered a bike ride to his schoolmate Lynne Harper, 12, a petite girl with a mop of auburn curls.

She scooted up onto the handle bars, and Truscott peddled along a country road toward a paved highway outside their drowsy hometown of Clinton, Ontario, 75 miles west of Toronto.

Harper was steaming. She'd had an argument with her parents and decided to stick out her thumb and hitch a ride somewhere - anywhere.

Truscott dropped her at the highway then doubled back. He paused and watched from a distance as Harper got in a car that stopped.

Six or seven hours later, just before midnight on June 9, 1959, the girl's father called police to report that she had not come home that night.

When word of the disappearance got around, Truscott stepped forward to tell what he knew: that he had given the girl a lift on her bike and watched her get in a car on the highway.

Three days later, a search party found Harper's body in the woods outside Clinton. She had been raped and strangled.

Even before the corpse was found, authorities had focused on a presumed killer: 14-year-old Truscott. And they worked single mindedly to confirm that assumption.

Investigators surmised that the teen had not dropped the girl on the highway but had diverted into the woods, where he had his way with her and then killed her in a graceless act intended to conceal his sex crime.

Portrait of a predator

Three months later, the boy - charged as an adult - sat wide-eyed in an Ontario courtroom as prosecutors portrayed him as a lethal sexual predator.

No physical evidence linked him to the murder, so the case against him was circumstantial, including a key piece of inferred evidence from the coroner, John Penistan.

Based on an analysis of the victim's stomach contents, Penistan made a remarkably precise estimate of the hour at which she was killed. He testified she died between 7:15 and 7:45 p.m., about the time she was with Truscott.

The girl's mother testified that Lynne was a proper child who would not have hitchhiked - even though the woman had told police on the night of the disappearance that her daughter may have been thumbing a ride to her grandmother's house.

Truscott sat mute during the trial on advice from his lawyer. After hearing evidence and arguments for two weeks, a jury convicted him of murder, and under Canadian law the judge had no option but to sentence him to hang.

The teen spent several months on Death Row before a public outcry over the impending execution of a 14-year-old led the prime minister to commute his sentence to life in prison.

In 1966, a book by investigative journalist Isabel LeBourdais accused provincial authorities of railroading Truscott while burying evidence that contradicted their presumptions about his guilt.

It came to light that a farmer had reported seeing an unusual yellow car near the murder scene, and two boys had told police that they saw Truscott take Harper to the highway, just as he said.

Canada's Supreme Court reviewed the case in 1966 but ruled there had been no errors in the judicial process that would call for a new trial - even though coroner Penistan admitted after an "agonizing reappraisal" that his narrow estimate of the time of death might well have been wrong. He changed his window of death from 30 minutes to a 48-hour span.

The country's legal system tacitly acknowledged the possibility of Truscott's innocence by paroling him in 1969, after 10 years in prison.

He changed his name and settled in Guelph, Ontario, where he married, fathered three children and made a career as a millwright.

His case was one motivation when the nation abolished capital punishment in 1976.

'Miscarriage of justice'

Over the years since then, the conviction and near execution of a teenager on such scant evidence has weighed on Canada's national conscience, and journalists and authors have continued to scrutinize what went wrong.

In 2000, the soft-spoken Truscott stepped forward to tell his story on Canadian television. He said he was innocent, and an advocacy group for the wrongly convicted asked the government to reexamine the case.

A retired judge spent nearly two years reviewing every detail of the murder, investigation and trial.

Based on the judge's report, Justice Minister Irwin Cotler referred the matter to the Ontario Court of Appeal, saying, "I have determined that there is a reasonable basis to conclude that a miscarriage of justice occurred in this case."

Lynne Harper's body was exhumed in 2006 in a search for DNA evidence that might have definitively cleared Truscott.

When no usable evidence was found, the appeals court undertook an exhaustive judicial review in 2006 and 2007. The justices heard testimony for more than four weeks and considered both old and new evidence.

Witnesses picked apart nearly every element of Truscott's prosecution, including Penistan's time of death estimate. One witness, just 9 years old in 1959, said the fundamental details of her account had been blatantly changed by investigators to fit their case against Truscott.

A retired investigator admitted that he and his colleagues had not seriously considered other suspects, including a sergeant at a nearby military base who had a record of sexual perversion with adolescent girls - and who owned a yellow car like the one seen near the site of the murder.

On Aug. 28, 2007, the five-judge court announced that it had voted unanimously to quash the conviction and acquit Truscott of a crime that had defined his life for 48 years.

"I never in my wildest dreams expected in my lifetime for this to come true," Truscott told reporters. "What we've known for years and years, now other people will know."

The government issued an apology, and in 2008 it gave him something more tangible for his troubles: $6.5 million.