I am now part of a very, very small minority: I think Stephen Truscott might well have murdered Lynn Harper.
From the Supreme Court Ruling (a fairly complete account of all the witness testimony)>
It’s not an easy position to take: every single person I know who is aware of the case believes Truscott is innocent, and that he has been proven innocent.
The Supreme Court was probably right, in it’s recent ruling, to declare that Truscott might not today have been found guilty by a reasonable jury of the charges against him, based on the evidence offered at this original trial and now somewhat discredited. They may also have calibrated their ruling to contemporaneous public opinion which is overwhelmingly in favor of Truscott’s innocence. Most of this opinion is reflexive unexamined belief inspired by a kind of consensus that has developed on the issue.
But the Supreme Court was also right to say that it could not, with any degree of certainty, pronounce him innocent. In spite of the consensus. That is significant.
There are two main reasons for my uncertainty. Firstly, Truscott’s testimony before the Supreme Court when it initially reviewed the case in 1966 was extremely problematic. He was given ample opportunity to impress the court with a clear, forthright description of what actually happened the night of June 9, 1959. This he failed to do. If he was not with Lynn Harper in the woods at that time, he was factually somewhere else doing something else. The court was generous in offering him space to simply recount what it was. This he failed to do.
Instead, he seemed to equivocate, blend, improvise, and evade. He was a bad witness in every respect.
Truscott never testified at his original trial, as was his prerogative.
Now, it’s clearly possible that he was nervous, confused, or even evasive for the wrong reasons, but whatever the cause, he could not give a rational narrative account of how he took Lynne Harper down the road to the highway, who he passed and did not pass, how long it took, and then how he left her there and then turned around to see her get into a stranger’s car. It seemed to some of the justices that he was trying to say whatever he thought would convince them that he was innocent, instead of trusting to a real narrative of the nights events. By itself, this isn’t compelling… but it’s disturbing.
Truscott acknowledged to the police that he gave Lynn Harper a ride on his bike the night of her death. There was an interesting period of two days before his arrest in which Truscott circulated among his friends, who were all talking about the disappearance of Lynne Harper, and many of whom knew Truscott had been seen with her moments before she disappeared. If Truscott was guilty, his situation was precarious. He needed to know how much they knew. It was immediately apparent that everyone knew he had given her a ride, but it was also apparent that nobody had seen him take her into Lawson’s Bush. But he almost acts as if he was worried someone did– he tells some of his friends that he had gone there looking for stray calves that evening. Later, he denied this.
But his story seems to vary on the details that he thought or knew with some certainty could not have been known by anyone else. He never provided any details the police didn’t know about that could be independently, reliably verified and that would have reinforced his alibi.
The second reason for my uncertainty of his innocence is the problem of the location where they found Lynne Harper’s body. There is some fairly strong evidence to indicate that Harper had been murdered and raped exactly where her body was found in Lawson’s woods– there seemed to be indentations where a rapist’s knees and toes would have dug into the ground. This means that, if Truscott didn’t do it, whoever did do it picked her up at the highway, drove off, then turned around and brought her back to the area from which he had abducted her, took her into Lawson’s woods, murdered and raped her, and left her there to be found two days later. Even if the real perpetrator had murdered her somewhere else, he remarkably delivered her body right back into the neighborhood from which he taken her, and where, presumably, parents and friends and even the police might be out looking for her.
It’s not completely inconceivable. But it’s a stretch.
That’s why, as I said, I would personally might have voted –with reluctance– “not guilty”. I think I might have concluded that he probably was guilty, but the prosecution had not made a convincing case.
But an alternative explanation for how Lynn’s body came to be found in Lawson’s bush seems unconvincing. It’s difficult to explain. It’s difficult to imagine. Did a stranger– the man who picked her up at the highway– take her somewhere for a few hours and then return when none of the kids swimming or fishing in the Bayfield River (between the highway and the woods) were still around? Did he get confused and drive around and end up back where he started by mistake? Was the scientific evidence mistaken: was she raped somewhere else and then perversely returned to the area he took her from, for some grim joke?
There is one possibility I hadn’t considered when I first wrote this piece. Suppose Truscott’s story was true, and she had been picked up by a stranger in a car. Suppose that after driving some distance away, the stranger began to frighten her with his behavior, or suppose she changed her mind about running away, and suppose that, in either case, she asked him to bring her back home? Suppose he did, reluctantly, and then, at the last minute, saw Lawson’s woods on the left, drove down the old farm road, and attacked her there?
Don’t forget that farmer Bob Lawson, after he heard that Lynne was missing, reported to the police that he had seen a strange car parked along the wood about 10:00 the night Lynne disappeared, and that he had exchanged words with the driver who then quickly drove away. He thought he saw a much smaller person than the driver in the passenger seat.
The only problem with this scenario is that it would have been unlikely to have gone without notice in the first few hours after Truscott left her at the highway, because of the number of witnesses, and the day light. Again, it’s possible, but…. [added April 27, 2008]
Some of the reasons that people give for believing Truscott is innocent don’t carry a lot of weight with me. Sure he has consistently maintained his innocence for all these years. Sure he actively sought a retrial with very little to gain. Sure he seems like a very nice man. But he didn’t seriously pursue exoneration until after he was married. Did he suddenly have a passion for clearing his name? Or did the passion come from his wife, who believed his claims of innocence, and was outraged by injustice of it all? Is it possible that Stephen Truscott, at that stage of his life, felt lucky just to be free? Is it equally possible he did not have faith in a justice system that had so clearly gotten it wrong? It’s possible that his wife, who believed him, felt strongly about changing the verdict. It’s possible that Truscott, knowing he really was guilty, didn’t want to press his luck, but after convincing his wife of his innocence felt compelled to follow through with an appeal.
Truscott was only 14 at the time of Lynne Harper’s murder. But he was 5′ 7″ at the time, and 130 pounds.
As I said, I have no problem believing that Truscott might have been wrongfully convicted. Jocelyn Gaudet’s testimony now impresses no one. The bicycle track found near the body was farcically unlikely to have come from Truscott’s bike (it was made in the mud and there had been no rain for a long time). The time of death given by the pathologist as precisely during the hour Truscott was with Harper is now disbelieved. (This testimony was initially regarded as proof she died early in the evening– while she was with Truscott. A reexamination of the evidence only proves that she could have died later. But that’s important– this evidence has been re-examined carefully because it is so pivotal to the case. She could have been killed later. At least one expert, Dr. Warren Spitz, who examined the reports 40 years later, said he “stood behind” the original autopsy conclusions.)
The testimony of the children at the river and along the road is inconsistent and unreliable. Astonishingly, it still is today! That alone deserves a book: they can’t all still be telling the truth. Their memories have become conformed to whatever version of the story they have insisted on telling again and again and again over all the years but, I repeat, they can’t possibly all be telling the truth. Either Truscott rode past the culvert with Lynne Harper on his bike and returned without her or he didn’t.
I’m never surprised to read about a case of wrongful conviction. I think the police and prosecutors often pick on the first likely suspect and build a case around him. I just read about how a man convicted of rape and murder in Mississippi and sentenced to death was recently released after DNA evidence proved that he was not the source of the sperm found on the victim’s body.
The man is black and mildly retarded. The authorities say they might still try him again, because they don’t find DNA evidence “convincing”. He might have had an accomplice. “We didn’t need DNA evidence to convict him the first time” says a state attorney.
I have very little doubt that they got the wrong man. I’m pretty sure this guy was railroaded and the police obviously made no effort to catch the real perpetrator. Did I mention that he was black?
I don’t have that degree of certainty about Truscott and, unless someone finds the missing specimen jars somewhere, I think I never will.
The DNA evidence from the Truscott case– whatever there was left of the samples they took from Lynne Harper’s body– went missing years ago and is presumed lost. That is a tragedy.
A few years ago I undertook a project on the Truscott evidence. Taking the testimony of all the children and adults who gave information on where they were during the evening of June 9, 1959, I created a 3D motion graphic in Lightwave to plot everyone’s claimed movements. I created a Truscott-and-Harper-on-a-bike avatar and moved it on a 3D map from the school down the road past Lawson’s Bush to Hwy 8, and back again while a clock showed the advancing minutes up to the end of the window of possibilities.
It was very, very difficult to make the animation work out in Truscott’s favor. There are too many people walking or biking to the creek or from the creek to give space to Truscott’s version.
I am generally very sympathetic to claims of wrongful convictions. I surprised myself when, after reading more and more about the Truscott case, I started coming to the conclusion that this case doesn’t fit the classic mold of a wrongful conviction.
Here is an interesting analysis of some of Truscott’s comments on his own case by someone convinced of his guilt. Some of his observations can easily be discounted as interpretation of language. I don’t find it difficult to believe that Truscott would use language that sometimes sounds as if it is the expression of a person who knows he is guilty simply because he has psychologically absorbed something of the public perception of his guilt. What I do find interesting is the same thing the Supreme Court found interesting when he testified to them in 1966: he didn’t have a clear narrative that gave a convincing alternative to the police theory of the sequence of events. For example, he didn’t give any information about what he said to Lynne Harper after he dropped her off at the intersection. As the gentleman observes, didn’t she say anything to him about the ponies he says she was going to see, or about hitch-hiking, or about when she was coming back?
But then, is this evidence any more compelling than the almost uniform observation by all witnesses that Truscott appeared absolutely calm and undisturbed just minutes after he allegedly raped and murdered Lynne Harper?[added February 2009]
14-year-old Gordon Logan saw Truscott and Harper pass over the bridge on the the way to the highway. If he was telling the truth, Truscott was definitely innocent.
The police thought Truscott had somehow persuaded Logan to lie for him. But some accounts claim that Logan gave his evidence to police before Lynne’s body was even found.
More on the Testimonies.
More on the Case