It is a nightmarish scenario: a 12-year-old schoolgirl disappears. Her body is found 2 days later. She has been raped and murdered. The young man accused of her rape and murder is just 14 years old. He is found guilty and sentenced to death.
This, stripped-down, is the plot of a play now being performed by Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto. Entitled Innocence Lost: A Play About Steven Truscott, it is based on fact, not fiction. It recreates the drama and anguish of the real-life case of Steven Murray Truscott, which began at an air base in Clinton, Ontario, on a steamy evening in June 1959. Steven gave his classmate, Lynne Harper, a ride on his bike over a bridge to the highway just outside town.
After returning to the bridge to join a group of friends, Steven glanced back and noticed Lynne climbing into a car. The police didn’t believe him. They claimed, as did the crown prosecutor at his trial, that Steven had taken Lynne into a wooded area located on the way to the highway, where he killed her. Medical evidence was heavily weighted against the boy, and several of his schoolmates testified against him. The judge and jury didn’t believe him either, and he was found guilty. And because he was tried as an adult, there was only one possible sentence available in Canada at that time: death by hanging.
Innocence Lost is part interaction between the various players, who juggle multiple roles, and part information conveyed directly to the audience. There is one fictional role — that of Sarah, whom playwright Beverley Cooper describes as being loosely based on a friend of Steven Truscott’s. This device, says Cooper, “freed things up” for her, allowing her to channel a variety of opinions through this fictional individual while sticking close to the (well-researched) truth with respect to the words and actions of the non-fictional characters.
Well worth waiting for in Act 2 is Nancy Palk’s portrayal of the passionate and persistent investigative journalist Isabel Lebourdais. Lebourdais’s 1966 book, The Trial of Steven Truscott, was a searing denunciation of Truscott’s trial and guilty verdict.
“Who killed Lynne Harper?” Lebourdais asks in the final chapter of her book. Different theories have been advanced over the years: a convicted pedophile based in Clinton at the time of Lynne’s death; an airman stationed in Clinton prior to 1959 with a “weakness for alcohol and little girls”; a travelling salesman; a convicted rapist who worked as an electrician at the base. But the trail is stone cold, and the question will probably never be answered.
As for Steven Truscott, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. In 1969, after 10 years in prison, he was eligible for parole and gained his release. It took another 38 years, however, for the Ontario Court of Appeal to acquit Steven of the murder, meaning that his guilt could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The court had earlier declared that his conviction was a miscarriage of justice that “must be quashed.”
Nearly 60 years on, the Steven Truscott case still stands out as a chilling study of wrongful conviction and miscarriage of justice. Innocence Lost is a timely reminder that some things should never be forgotten.