On Monday the province of Ontario announced it is paying $6.5-million to Steven Truscott in compensation for nearly hanging him about 50 years ago. Back then all except a handful of people believed that Truscott, 14 in 1959, raped and killed 12-year-old Lynne Harper. Today all except a handful of people believe that he didn’t.
Did some cutting-edge science, such as DNA, change our minds? Or did somebody confess? Not really. What changed was the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. That’s how we saw it then, and that’s how we see it today.
At the time, several correspondents wrote to say that it was unseemly, even impertinent, for journalists, writers, TV-types, maverick lawyers, or crusading activists not to acquiesce in jury verdicts or appellate court opinions. How did dissenting scribblers such as Kay and me — or Isabel Lebourdais, whose 1966 book was the first to champion Truscott’s innocence — have the gall to question the authorities? Who did we think we were?
“If a competent court makes a finding,” an acquaintance said to me around that time, “I consider the matter settled. Are you telling me I am wrong?”
But acquiescing uncritically in the last word of duly constituted authorities means acquiescing uncritically in a miscarriage of justice. It means acquiescing in the wrongful arrest of a Susan Nelles or the wrongful conviction of a Donald Marshall Jr., a Thomas Sophonow, a David Milgaard, a Guy Paul Morin, and many others. It means, as we will discover one day, acquiescing in the wrongful conviction of Conrad Black.