A man who was convicted 48 years ago of the hideous rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl has finally been exonerated, but it took a few hundred flies and the young science of forensic entomology to win his freedom.
Steven Truscott was only 14 years old when he was sentenced to die in Canada by hanging for the murder of a childhood friend, Lynn Harper.
His sentence stimulated debate over the death penalty, primarily because of his youth. Although this debate contributed to the abolition of capital punishment in Canada, Truscott still served 10 years in jail and has spent the rest of his life living in the shadow of an unwarranted conviction.
Attorney James Lockyer of Toronto argued passionately before the Ontario Court of Appeals on behalf of Truscott, who has proclaimed his innocence over all these years, and in the end the court agreed with those claims, at least partly.
Last month the court quashed the conviction, labeling it a "miscarriage of justice."
The ruling wasn't a surprise to entomologist Richard Merritt of Michigan State University -- one of a dozen certified forensic entomologists in the United States -- whose testimony in the trial was "critical," according to Lockyer. The proof, Merritt argued during a rigorous seven hours testifying, was provided by the flies that would have landed on the young girl's body within minutes of her death.
"I was brain dead at the end," said Merritt, who has become somewhat passionate in his defense of Truscott.
"It was a horrific crime," he said in an interview. "I could never imagine how this kid who went to school with this girl and was a friend of hers could have done this."
Truscott was the last person seen with Harper, late in the afternoon of June 9, 1958. She was a passenger on his bike on the outskirts of their Canadian village. Her body was found two days later near the place where the two had been seen. Lynn had been raped and strangled with her own blouse.
Timing became key in the trial and subsequent appeals of the case.
"The time of her death has been the subject of intense controversy from the outset," the court observed in rendering last month's verdict.
Numerous witnesses testified that they saw the two youngsters riding on the bike at around 7 p.m., and Truscott was seen alone at about 8 p.m. So if Truscott did it, the murder had to occur during that narrow window between 7 p.m. and about 8 p.m.
The pathologist who conducted the autopsy put the time of death at precisely between 7:15 and 7:45 p.m.
John Penistan based that conclusion primarily on the examination of the food contents in her stomach, which he testified had been in Harper's body less than two hours at the time of her death. During the appellate court appeal, several experts testified that stomach contents are subject to many variables, including temperature and the nature of the food and many others, and thus could not be a reliable way of determining the precise time of death.
Merritt is more blunt in his assessment. "It was crap," he said.
Sadly, in a handwritten memorandum that Penistan himself called an "agonizing reappraisal," he admitted that he spoke with too much confidence during Truscott's trial, and his own evidence did not rule out the possibility that the murder could have occurred several hours later, when Truscott was at home.
That memo, which only surfaced recently, was written seven years after the conviction, while Truscott was still in prison serving a life sentence.