TELEVISION

Zealots at error

Did a 14-year-old boy rape and murder?

VICTOR DWYER February 22 1993
TELEVISION

Zealots at error

Did a 14-year-old boy rape and murder?

VICTOR DWYER February 22 1993

Zealots at error

TELEVISION

Did a 14-year-old boy rape and murder?

THE SCALES OF JUSTICE (CBC, Feb. 21, 8 p.m.)

The evidence is at times compelling that the Canadian legal system is overly eager to find accused murderers guilty—and to keep them in jail. Finally released on bail last week, Ontario’s Guy Paul Morin was twice tried for the 1984 sex slaying of his nine-year-old neighbor, Christine Jessop—despite allegations of legal errors and a seriously flawed police investigation.

Last April, the Supreme Court recommended a new trial for David Milgaard, who had spent 23 years in prison after he was convicted of the rape and murder of Saskatoon nurse’s aide Gail Miller. In 1983, Nova Scotian Donald Marshall ended an 11-year stay in prison after the RCMP reviewed the stabbing death of teenager Sandy Seale—and witnesses claimed that they had, under police pressure, lied in court. But long before any of those cases hit the headlines, another trial, and another guilty verdict, pricked the conscience of the nation. In 1959, despite contradictory evidence and questionable court proceedings, 14-year-old Steven Truscott of Clinton, Ont., near London, was sentenced to life in prison for the rape and murder of schoolmate Lynne Harper. Now, his story is the subject of an absorbing new episode of the CBC series The Scales of Justice.

Because it was so controversial, the Truscott case was a natural for the series. Since the show’s debut two years ago, writer-producer George Jonas and host Edward Greenspan have delivered re-creations of seven noteworthy cases in Canadian history. And although they have occasionally focused on the system’s inability to compensate victims of crime, it is the sense in which the system is too powerful that has intrigued them most. The latest episode, directed by Sturla Gunnarsson, follows that tradition. Intense and enlightening, it argues that, whether guilty or not, Truscott did not get fair treatment in the courts.

The program is divided into roughly equal parts crime story, courtroom drama and Greenspan-delivered monologues on the relevant points of law. The story begins on June 9, 1959, when, as Greenspan says with fitting melodrama, “12-year-old Lynne Harper

jumped onto the bicycle of her classmate Steven Truscott and the two of them rode off together into Canadian history.” Two days later, searchers found Harper’s strangled body in a wooded area just outside of town.

After only three days, police charged Truscott (Zachery Ansley) with the young girl’s rape and murder. By October, Crown attorney Glenn Hays, played by Kenneth

Welsh in a curiously flat performance, had prepared his case. He then pursued it, Greenspan notes wryly, “with a zealousness that deviated from the ideal.” And Greenspan convincingly argues that Hays was not Truscott’s only enemy in the courtroom. Although he sometimes berated Hays for being too aggressive, Judge Robert Irvin Ferguson (Sean McCann) quietly chipped away at Truscott’s chances for a fair hearing. Refusing to call a mistrial when Hays mentioned prejudicial evidence in his opening

statements, the judge ended the proceedings weeks later with a charge to the jury that effectively ordered its members to ignore the eyewitness evidence ofTruscotfs innocence.

Because it is about a trial that ended long ago, Regina vs. Truscott depends for its dramatic tension on demonstrating how things ended as they did. A measure of the show’s success is the electricity that pervades the courtroom scenes. Although Truscott’s fate was sealed decades ago, it seems, with each new piece of evidence and each turn of phrase, to hang in the balance. Particularly engrossing is the testimony of a series of young witnesses, friends and acquaintances of the murdered and the accused, who gravely recall the events of the day in question.

The program loses momentum in its second half, which traces the case’s journey to the Supreme Court, where it was sent for review by cabinet in 1966. Although significant in terms of legal history—it was the first time the high court ever called witnesses to testify—the proceedings evoke a sense more of farce than of tragedy: basing its decision on what it called the “many incredibilities” of the depressed and nervous Truscott’s own recollection of events, the court rejected the appeal.

In closing, Greenspan notes that Truscott, who was released on parole in 1969 after serving the minimum 10-year sentence, is now living under a different name—one that even his children do not know is fabricated. That is a small point, but one that illustrates the series’ determination to highlight the human consequences of a legal system over which justice does not always preside.

VICTOR DWYER