Until You Are Dead: Steven Truscott’s Long Ride into History by Julian Sher

UNTIL YOU ARE DEAD: Steven Truscott's Long Ride into History by Julian Sher

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover (available in trade), 580 pages, 2001

Rating: 10/10

Reason for Reading: An interest in the law that led to an interest in Canada’s justice system failing miserably, as in the case of Guy Paul Morin. The gripping title helped, too.

Synopsis: In 1959, fourteen-year-old Steven Truscott was accused of the brutal rape and murder of his twelve-year-old classmate, Lynne Harper. For over forty years, Truscott has protested that he was innocent. With this book, Sher produces a mountain of judicial bumblings, hidden testimony, exaggerations, and lies that led to Truscott’s initial judge sentencing him to ‘be hanged from the neck until you are dead.’

Why you should read this book: Obviously, Sher is on Truscott’s side, but he remains unbiased enough to present facts against Truscott as well as in support of his story. The impact of this case on Canada’s judicial system is broad, from helping to abolish the death penalty to Canadians being confronted with the fact that maybe the judge isn’t always right. Truscott’s story is horrifying and yet amazing for the unfaltering strength he displayed even as a young teenager. Well-researched, well-presented.

Why you should avoid this book: There’s some graphic details about Lynne’s death – nothing for the sake of sensationalism, just evidence, but it can still be hard to read about the murder of a twelve-year-old girl.

Opening paragraph:

Nine-year-old Karen Daum was uneasy. ‘Be very quiet,’ she remembers Miss Beacom warning the grade Four pupils as they pointed to the air force men and whispered nervously. ‘One of the girls from school is missing and they are trying to find her.’

Fabulous quotes:

In the 1950s, social issues, like television, were black and white. There was little of the fiery passion that colourized the turmoil of the sixties or the shades of grey that have characterized debates in the more cynical decades since. It was Good versus Evil; justice always triumphed and justice was never wrong. Just ask Sergeant Joe Friday in Dragnet or Sheriff Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke. The sexual overtones of Lynne’s murder made it all the more shocking. This was, after all, a time when parents on TV still slept in separate beds, when the panicky headline on the cover of the first issue of Maclean’s magazine for 1959 asked: ‘Going Steady: Is It Ruining Our Teenagers?’ So it was little surprise, then, that the Ontario government’s bold announcement of a hunt for Harper’s killer ‘dead or alive’ should touch a popular chord.

The next day, on Friday June 12, the experts at the provincial laboratory confirmed that the food was in Lynne’s stomach for ‘not more than two hours.’ Graham promptly had Steven picked up and arrested. In that scenario, Penistan took the initiative and his insightful findings on Thursday night were backed up by other experts on Friday. Medical science leads, the police follow. Hays surrounded his case with an aura of scientific objectivity. The story sounded plausible and the jury believed it. But there is strong evidence to suggest that Penistan doctored his evidence on both the time of death and the contents of the stomach to help the police and the prosecution. In other words, he made the time fit the crime.

Also Recommended: Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi; Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre; Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by John Douglas.

Also by this author: One Child at a Time: The Global Fight to Rescue Children from Online Predators; Angels of Death: Inside the Bikers’ Empire of Crime (with William Marsden); The Road to Hell: How the Biker Gangs are Conquering Canada; White Hoods: Canada’s Ku Klux Klan.

Author’s website: journalismnet.com

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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