“To be hanged by the neck until you are dead.”
These words were addressed to a fourteen-year old boy in a courtroom in the small town of Goderich, Ontario on September 30, 1959.
The boy was Steven Truscott and he was convicted of raping and murdering his 12-year old classmate, Lynne Harper. The case went to the Court of Appeal and to the Supreme Court of Canada soon after the conviction. The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal and the Supreme Court refused to hear it.
There was a lengthy and exhaustive review in a reference before the Supreme Court in 1966. There were more references, appeals and proceedings. All of them concluded that Steven Truscott was guilty as charged.
The case became a cause célèbre with books and articles written about it, a film, documentaries and much publicity keeping it in the eye of the public. Fifty-nine years after the murder the case is still haunting us and its latest appearance is in a play by Beverley Cooper, Innocence Lost: A Play About Steven Truscott.
Cooper tells the story of the Truscott case using ten actors who reenact scenes and speak directly to the audience about events as they unfolded. We see stories from the investigation, the reaction of the town people, the evidence gathered against Truscott and portions of the trial. All the characters in the play are based on real people except for a woman called Sarah (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster) who takes part in relating the horrible saga and is an invention of Cooper. Truscott is played Dan Mousseau who appears innocent and unsure about what is happening and that is exactly what one would expect.
One of the key characters is Isabel LeBourdais (Nancy Palk), a young journalist who wrote a book about the case that was very influential in bringing the case to the attention of politicians and the public. It set in motion a series of events that lead to the 1966 Supreme Court reference into the case which was unsuccessful.
The murder understandably shook up the small community and the fascinating part of Cooper’s retelling of the events is the changing attitude of the public (call it mob, if you will) from disbelief to slowly turning against the boy. The police, the judge and the witnesses were all decent people but perceptions change, subconscious decisions are made and what everybody thought was a fair trial proving guilt (albeit all based on circumstantial evidence) was the right verdict becomes doubtful.
What no one seems to have considered at the time was if the community where the victim and the accused lived and in the tension that was created, was the proper place for the trial. It clearly was not because the chances of finding an impartial jury was almost impossible. Not that any juror was consciously predisposed to convicting Truscott or the investigators had any predilection in that direction. Innocence Lost illustrates the emotional turmoil of a community that cannot be expected to be impartial.
The play has numerous scenes and the actors change characters in order to tell a good part of the story. Director Jackie Maxwell is more than adept at handling the intricacies of the case as presented by Cooper. But only a small part of the story is told because the case is too big and too complicated to tell much more.
Innocence Lost will whet your appetite for more information about the Truscott case and that is a high complement for the director, the cast and the production.
The play deals very briefly with the events after the conviction. The sentence of hanging was commuted to imprisonment, Steven Truscott served his sentence and was paroled, later married and had children. But he remained guilty of the rape and murder of Lynne Harper and all the judges who dealt with the case agreed with that verdict.
Until 2007, that is. The case reached the Court of Appeal again and after an exhaustive review of the events of June 1959 and everything that occurred after that in connection with Steven Truscott, five judges stated that Truscott’s “conviction for murder is set aside and an acquittal entered.”
Innocence Lost: A Play About Steven Truscott by Beverley Cooper continues until June 22, 2018 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario M5A 3C4. www.soulpepper.ca.