“Until You Are Dead”

By Julian Sher

It is a depressing reflection on the Canadian legal system that so many of our best-known criminal cases have involved the miscarriage of justice. And while the names of Donald Marshall, Guy Paul Morin, and David Milgaard are all familiar, if any one case stands out from the line-up it is that of Steven Truscott.

As most people know, Steven Truscott was convicted for the rape and murder of Lynne Harper in 1959, and, at the age of 14, sentenced to be hanged. Even by the standards of the time this was considered rigorous, and in the face of public criticism – not to mention doubts about the evidence and fairness of the trial – the sentence remained “in a judicial limbo” while the controversy surrounding his conviction grew. As Steven passed quietly through the prison system as a model inmate his case became a bestseller and was argued before a special sitting of the Supreme Court.

“Until You Are Dead” is a detailed history and re-examination of the Truscott case, and includes a number of new revelations uncovered during the production of the recent fifth estate documentary on the subject (which author Julian Sher produced). Passionate, thorough and highly readable, it bears comparison to Kirk Makin’s epic account of the Guy Paul Morin trials, Redrum the Innocent. Like Makin’s book, it is also a weighty indictment of our criminal system, and the terrible results when it goes wrong.

As with most cases resulting in wrongful convictions, the initial police investigation was driven by tunnel vision. Based on little more than the fact that Steven was the last person known to have seen Lynn Harper alive, he was picked up by the police a mere 24 hours after the arrival of the chief investigator. Once they had him in jail the so-called investigation became nothing more than a search for evidence leading to his conviction. Evidence that didn’t fit the police account of what happened was either ignored or twisted to make it fit. In one of the book’s new revelations, Sher even shows how the failure to look for known sexual predators living in the area ignored rudimentary police procedures. As he convincingly argues, if they had done this basic background they would have found at least one lead worth pursuing.

The performance of the judicial system was even worse. With his defence hamstrung by inadequate disclosure rules, the misuse of bogus scientific evidence, and an assassin’s charge to the jury from the trial judge, it is clear that Steven’s trial was unfair. And in at least one instance (the withholding of a witness statement supporting Steven’s defence), Sher suggests the prosecution might have even broken the law.

In documenting Steven’s “long ride into history” Sher shows how difficult it is for a bad case to be remedied. There is an inertia in the criminal justice system that is nearly impossible for an individual to overcome. Police and the courts are loath to admit they are ever wrong, or sometimes incompetent. Steven’s experience at the hands of a drug-happy prison psychiatrist is typical of the Catch-22 situation faced by a sane person in such an insane situation: guilty if he confessed, and guilty if he professed his innocence. If it weren’t true, it could only be described as black comedy.

“Until You Are Dead” brings up to date an important chapter in Canadian history, one whose lessons must never be forgotten. At a time when opinion surveys show us becoming more and more accepting of expanded state and police powers, and as the technologies available for the exercise of those powers continue to advance, we should keep stories like Steven Truscott’s in mind.

Review first published November 24, 2001.


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