Steven Truscott to get $6.5M for wrongful conviction

The Ontario government will pay Steven Truscott $6.5 million for suffering a "miscarriage of justice" and living 48 years with the stigma of being wrongfully convicted of a rape and murder he did not commit.

Sentenced to hang at age of 14 for murdering classmate

The Ontario government will pay Steven Truscott $6.5 million for suffering a "miscarriage of justice" and living 48 years with the stigma of being wrongfully convicted of a rape and murder he did not commit.

"We are doing what we can to bring to the conclusion this remarkable aspect of Mr. Truscott's life's journey," Ontario Attorney General Chris Bentley said Monday in Toronto.

"We are doing what we can to conclude this journey, and it is my hope that Mr. Truscott and his family will now be able to spend all their time on the rest of life's journey."

He added that Truscott's wife, Marlene, will get $100,000 in compensation for the time she spent working to clear Truscott's name.

The announcement comes almost a year after the Ontario Court of Appeal acquitted Truscott of murder in the death of his friend, 12-year-old Lynne Harper, in the southwestern Ontario town of Clinton in June 1959. The court said his conviction was a "miscarriage of justice."

Truscott was just 14 years old when he was convicted in September 1959 after a 15-day trial. He was initially sentenced to hang, making him Canada's youngest death-row inmate, but after four months on death row, the sentence was commuted to life in prison.

He was granted parole at age 24 in 1969, after serving 10 years in jail.

Bentley said the government's decision to compensate was based on the advice of retired judge Sydney Robins, who was asked to study whether compensation would be appropriate, and if so, how much should he get?

'No amount of money could ever truly compensate Steven'

In a written statement, Truscott and his wife called the compensation a "final and long-awaited step in recognizing Steve's innocence." Still, the couple said the money is bittersweet.

"Although we are grateful for the freedom and stability this award will provide, we are also painfully aware that no amount of money could ever truly compensate Steven for the terror of being sentenced to hang at the age of 14, the loss of his youth or the stigma of living for almost 50 years as a convicted murderer," the Truscotts said.

Robins, in a written report outlining how he decided how much Truscott should be paid, noted there is no legal obligation to compensate Truscott, Still, he said not compensating Truscott would leave him with a stigma, a suggestion of guilt.

"The total amount paid to Mr. Truscott should be enough to ensure that he can live the remainder of his life with financial security, and in comfort and dignity, able to assist his family as he sees fit," Robins wrote.

"It should also be enough to send a clear signal to the public that the government recognizes the enormity of the suffering that this miscarriage of justice has caused."

The Harper family has yet to comment publicly on the compensation package. Harper's father, Leslie Harper, has said he was stunned by Truscott's acquittal and fears Truscott only sought to clear his name for financial reasons.

Since the acquittal, no one else has been charged with Harper's slaying. Over the years, other people have been named in the media as potential suspects. They include Alexander Kalichuk, an air force sergeant with a history of sexual offences who lived near the military base where Truscott and Harper grew up. Kalichuk, a heavy drinker, died in 1975.

Suffering considered in compensation decision

In awarding Truscott $6.5 million, Robins said he considered the emotional turmoil he has endured.

"There is no question but that Mr. Truscott's conviction, incarceration and parole forever altered his life," Robins wrote.

He noted that Truscott, who now lives in Guelph, Ont., suffered from loneliness, isolation and a loss of privacy while spending his teenage years and early adulthood in prison. Robins talked of the terror Truscott felt knowing when he thought he was going to die, including the day Truscott heard hammering outside his prison cell and was certain it was prison guards building the scaffolding where he would be hanged.  

Once released from prison, Robins noted that life wasn't easy for Truscott. Under the conditions of his parole, which lasted until last year's acquittal, he couldn't leave the country or move without informing authorities. He was told to change his name to avoid attention.

Truscott and his wife married in secret in 1970 to avoid publicity and moved nine times to protect the safety of their three children, Robins said. He said Truscott suffered from nightmares and social anxieties, and has become extremely shy and hesitant. 

But despite all the hardship, Robins said Truscott has been "an exemplary citizen," working steadily as a machinist and millwright, providing a stable life for his family and always abiding by the law.

Lack of DNA evidence in Truscott case

Robins noted that the Ontario Court of Appeal did not declare Truscott factually innocent, but Robins said it would be impossible to ever do so since DNA evidence has been lost and destroyed, and witnesses have died. Robins said it would be unfair to punish Truscott because of this.

Marlys Edwardh, one of Truscott's lawyers, said Truscott's case could give hope to others who are wrongfully accused but have no DNA evidence to clear their name.

"There are many wrongful convictions that can't be unwound by DNA," she said. "I think the model [Robins has] adopted is both useful and insightful, and will be of [precedent-setting] value."

But Alan Young, a professor at York University's Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, said the government is not bound to follow the same guidelines when dealing with other cases.

"It may be that the Steven Truscott case had such notoriety that they felt that they had to make the payment because the whole world was watching," he said.

"I like the development, but I wouldn't start celebrating a huge change in the approach, because it will still be a case-by-case determination."

Robins considered other cases

Robins said he considered other wrongful conviction cases in Canada, including the $10 million awarded to Winnipeg native David Milgaard after DNA cleared him of the 1969 rape and murder of a Saskatoon nursing aide. Robins noted that Milgaard, who was 16 at the time of his conviction, spent a total of 23 years in jail, 13 more than Truscott, and suffered a violent sexual assault while in prison.

Robins said the case of Maher Arar wasn't relevant to his decision, because the $12.5 million in compensation Arar received from the federal government was not for a wrongful conviction, but for damages resulting from his deportation to Syria, where he was jailed and tortured.  

The Ontario Court of Appeal finished its eight-month review of Truscott's case in February 2007, and announced its decision to acquit last Aug. 28. At the time, then Attorney General Michael Bryant apologized to Truscott and said the Crown has no plans to appeal.

Provincial legislators have been calling for Truscott to receive payment. In April, Guelph's Liz Sandals of the ruling Liberal party tabled a private member's motion seeking support for compensation for Truscott, and all parties approved it.

Robins recommended that the federal government pay 50 per cent of the compensation. Bentley said Ontario is paying it in full for now, to ensure Truscott gets his compensation quickly, but that negotiations with the federal government are ongoing.

With files from the Canadian Press