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Theatre Review: Innocence Lost: A Play about Steven Truscott

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Went to see the shocking play about Steven Truscott at Montreal's Centaur Theatre last weekend.

There are multiple reasons for the shocks. First, there is the story itself: In 1959, a 12-year-old girl was raped and murdered near Clinton, Ont., and a 14-year-old boy was pegged for the killer, even though there was virtually no evidence.

What probably convicted him, as far as I'm concerned: lesions on his penis that two doctors (including his own family physician) said could only have come from raping the girl. These doctors were not experienced in examining rapists. I think the mere fact that he had lesions on his penis was enough to make him a "sicko" in the eyes of the jurors.

It turns out Steven Truscott had some sort of skin sensitivity that caused cysts.

What's most shocking are the differences between the Canadian justice system c.1959 and now. A sampling of things that happened then that would not today:

--there was no change of venue
--they didn't have to inform Steven of his rights
--the prosecution was not required to fully disclose all pertinent information
--the process was incredibly speedy: the rape and murder happened in June, the 15-day trial in October, and the death sentence was set for December 8, 1959.

One of the other reasons the play is shocking: It is so badly written. The playwright, Beverley Cooper, used court transcripts and apparently knocked it together in a short time.

It shows.

Despite the strength of some of the actors -- Fiona Reid and Jane Wheeler, for example -- and some design touches (e.g., the lovely initial setup of a map of the area on the stage floor), there is not much here. The characters, for the most part, parade through, reciting little speeches. There are so many actors playing so many parts that the chance of bonding with anyone is nil.

How this play continues to be produced is a true mystery, not quite on par with the identity of Lynne Harper's murderer (who has never been fingered), but mysterious enough. The money and the energy wasted.

It is to weep.

If you have a couple of hours and want to know what really happened to Steven Truscott, you would be much better off reading a book about it. In preparation for attending the play, I read Nate Hendley's book Steven Truscott: Decades of Injustice.

It's short and to the point, yet written with empathy and craft. You can hear the crickets on the summer evening when it all happened, and feel the pain of injustices committed in our name. It made my blood boil anew at the Conservative government's boneheaded "tough on crime" strategy.

Under the guise of no longer "coddling" criminals, Mr. Harper seems to want to return to the bad old days when innocents could be railroaded in a matter of months. The protections accused people now have were hard won and to tamper with them is despicable. You may be interested in reading more about the organization that helped Mr. Truscott win the setting aside of his conviction, The Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted. I know I am.

Other great books worth looking up: Isabel LeBourdais' The Trial of Steven Truscott, the book that convinced the country of Steven's innocence, and Julian Sher's 'Until You are Dead' Steven Truscott's Long Ride into History, which dug up new evidence that helped clear Truscott's name and paved the way for a $6.5 million settlement from the government. If ever there was an argument to be made for the value of newspapers and investigative journalists, and for crusading writers, these authors have made it.

Find out more from CBC's The Fifth Estate.

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