It was a hot June evening. Steven Truscott, 14, dawdled on his bicycle at school. He thought he would pedal up the road to the swimming hole. Lynne Harper, 12, wandered over from a Brownie Scouts meeting. Could she have a ride on his handlebars, she asked?
That childhood moment in 1959, recounted in court at the time, ended in tragedy for both youngsters, with Harper dead and Truscott sentenced to hang for murder. Eventually the case would awaken the conscience of a nation, change how Canada views its police and courts and help abolish society's ultimate punishment -- the death penalty.
On Thursday, Truscott, now 59 and a grandfather, saw the first steps taken toward what his attorneys describe as belated justice. Canada's Justice Minister Irwin Cotler declared that Truscott had likely been the victim of a "miscarriage of justice" when he was hurriedly convicted of beating and strangling Harper 45 years ago, becoming the youngest person on death row in Canada's history.
Cotler sent the case back to an Ontario appeals court to review new evidence that has largely discredited the prosecution, calling it "the most appropriate and just route" to exonerating Truscott.
Truscott's death sentence was commuted shortly after his conviction, but he served a decade behind bars for a murder he has always insisted he did not commit. After his release in 1969, he lived quietly under an assumed name, but his case became a cause celebre in Canada and a major component of a national crusade to abolish the death penalty.
The campaign led to an unusual appeal in 2001 to the justice minister to overturn the conviction, more than three decades after Truscott's release. Already, the campaign had helped bring about the abolition of the death penalty in Canada and a legal decision preventing accused murderers from being extradited to the United States and other countries that still employ capital punishment.
Truscott, at home with his wife and three grown children in Guelph, Ontario, made no public comment Thursday. But one of his attorneys, Philip Campbell, described him as "disappointed" that Cotler had not quashed the original conviction and ordered a new trial, a process they believe would be quicker.
"This case has haunted Canada," said Julian Sher, whose 2000 television documentary and subsequent book helped challenge the conviction. "As Steven Truscott grew up in prison, Canada grew up," he said. "In 1959, we thought nothing of hanging a boy after a two-week trial. Only in the 1960s did people start questioning the kind of authority that permitted that. We have matured."
Truscott has been an appealing symbol. He never confessed and never changed his story about what happened on June 9, 1959. After being released at age 24 to live with a parole officer who believed him, Truscott lived quietly and never ran afoul of the law. Years later, he offered to take a DNA test to prove his innocence, but no samples from the crime could be found.
"People just looked at him and said it didn't add up," said Mary Yanchus, a teacher who helped organize a petition drive of 29,000 postcards on Truscott's behalf. "The people who stood up for him and said he's not that kind of boy always felt discredited."
But Thursday's decision leaves unanswered the mystery of what happened to Harper, who was found raped, beaten and strangled with her own blouse two days after she was last seen with Truscott.
The two youngsters were neighbors whose fathers were in the Canadian Air Force; they lived on a military base in Clinton, Ontario, 125 miles west of Toronto. It was a carefree era, when children had the run of their neighborhoods.
On the day she vanished, Harper wolfed down supper, helped with the dishes and then left her house alone, according to court transcripts and police notes included in Truscott's appeal. She stopped at a Brownie meeting at her school and then ran into Truscott. His story -- unchanged to this day -- is that Harper asked him for a ride to nearby Highway 8, where she started hitchhiking. He said he looked back and saw her get into a car.
But when searchers found her body in a wooded area near the school, police zeroed in on Truscott. He was arrested, interrogated for six hours and finally charged at 2 a.m.
At his trial, prosecutors speculated that Truscott had taken the girl to the woods to have sex and killed her. They had no witnesses or physical evidence, only a coroner's conclusion from undigested food in her stomach that she must have died in the short time she was with him. The jury convicted him, but recommended mercy. Instead, according to press accounts, the judge immediately slammed his gavel and ordered the stunned young man to be "hanged by the neck until you are dead."
On death row, the teenager heard hammering outside his cell and became convinced they were building the gallows. It turned out to be other construction, but "at night time, you lie there and cry," he said in Sher's documentary.
Three months after the trial, Canada's cabinet unexpectedly commuted Truscott's death sentence, apparently stung by critical international publicity. As soon as he became eligible for parole in 1969, he was released.
He changed his name and entered the workaday world as a millwright, a trade he learned in prison. He still works at the job, and is still married to a woman who campaigned for his release and married him when he got out.
But the case did not fade. It was the subject of a book and a poem that became a national rallying cry for his exoneration. It was a major argument in the debate that led Canada to restrict the death penalty in 1966 and abolish it 10 years later.
In 1999, Truscott finally told his children about the case and joined the effort to clear his name. Sher found the old police files and worked with a legal group to expose damaging information about the prosecution's case.
They found that an eyewitness had confirmed to police Truscott's story of giving Harper a ride to the highway and that others had disputed accounts of prosecution witnesses, according to the 561-page plea submitted to Cotler. But Truscott's attorneys were never given those files.
Furthermore, in 1966 the coroner wrote an "agonizing reappraisal" that acknowledged his initial finding about the time of Harper's death could have been off by 12 hours. But that statement was not shown to Truscott's attorneys or the Canada Supreme Court when the case was up for review that year.
There were other potential suspects, Sher and attorney James Lockyer discovered. A convicted pedophile stationed at the air base was found with a transcript of the Truscott case in his closet, and another airman had been arrested two weeks earlier trying to lure a 10-year-old into his car, according to the plea documents.
"The police picked the easy victim, and then applied a presumption of guilt instead of innocence," said Lockyer, who spent years working on the appeal to the justice minister. "All fingers pointed at Steven, and no one else."