Lawyers for Steven Truscott began the latest skirmish in a nearly half-century-old legal battle to clear him of the murder of Lynne Harper.

A five-member Ontario Court of Appeal heard defence arguments on Wednesday as to why Truscott should be exonerated in a case that saw him sentenced to death in 1959 at the age of 14.

James Lockyer, one of Canada's most prominent advocates for the wrongfully convicted, asked the judges to "look at the case anew,'' even if it means bending the rules of admissibility.

"If all that material had been before the court in 1959 ... rather than being sentenced to death (Steven Truscott) would have more likely been set free," Lockyer told the court.

"The fact remains that all previous court hearings, in our submission, have been conducted behind a veil."

Truscott's case first made it to the Supreme Court of Canada, which upheld the conviction in a 1966 decision.

Lockyer said previous proceedings were "based on fallacies -- fallacies that have only now come to light."

Much of the current case revolves around the legal concept of "disclosure," which means the Crown must make its evidence available to the defence.

The Crown's argument that Truscott's lawyers should have asked for it back during the original trial and chose not to, Lockyer said that argument didn't make sense.

"How could they decide in a vacuum that they didn't want to see something they had never seen?" Lockyer said.

"It's contrary to common sense that they would have made such a decision if they believed an option of full disclosure was open to them."

Lockyer said Truscott's fortunes didn't start to improve until 1998, when he came across archived evidence.

Truscott was only 14 when he was convicted of the rape and murder of 12-year-old schoolmate Lynne Harper.

The jury heard that Lynne finished her meal at 5:45 p.m. on June 9. She was last seen riding with Truscott, then 14, on his bicycle along a country road outside Clinton, Ont.

Truscott said he dropped Lynne off at Highway 8, where she hitched a ride in what appeared to be a '59 Chevy.

Two days later, on June 11, 1959, a search party discovered her decomposing remains in a wooded area off the county road on June 11, 1959.

Fresh evidence

Forensic evidence that brings a fresh perspective to the girl's time of death could loosen the figurative noose around Truscott's neck.

The evidence largely pertains to Lynne's stomach contents and the insect activity on her decomposing body. The oral hearings are expected to focus on what the evidence means in relation to the young girl's time of death.

In Truscott's trial, a regional pathologist testified that most of Lynne's last meal had been in her stomach, therefore time of death was likely between 7:15 p.m. and 7:45 p.m.

The timeframe pointed the finger at Truscott.

But Truscott's lawyers say evidence on the contents of Lynne's stomach, and the decomposition and larvae deposits on her body could be significant in his quest to be acquitted.

When the case returned to the appeal court last June, the judges heard a Toronto Western Hospital gastroenterologist, who has been studying the subject for more than 45 years, explain that the stomach nearly never empties within two hours after eating.

Dr. Nicholas Diamant told the court that in a normal person, it can take up to six hours for food to leave the stomach, but emotional stress can stop digestion for several hours.

Truscott's lawyers say this backs the theory that Lynne was abducted and killed by a stranger.

Oral submissions and closing arguments are expected to last about two-and-a-half weeks.

After the Appeal Court panel hears oral submissions and closing arguments, they have several options.

  • Ontario's highest court can:
  • decide to acquit Truscott;
  • order a new trial;
  • enter a stay of proceedings; or,
  • dismiss the appeal and let the conviction stand.

Truscott's journey

Truscott was convicted of first-degree murder on Sept. 30, 1959.

His sentence was commuted to life in prison in 1960, the same year his first appeal was denied.

In 1966, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled 8-1 to uphold the verdict. Truscott served 10 years in prison before he was released on parole in 1969.

He married, raised a family and settled down in Guelph, Ont., in anonymity under an assumed name.

Truscott, however, went public with his story in 2000 in a bid to clear his name. He applied to then-justice minister Irwin Cotler for a full exoneration.

Cotler defined the terms of reference for the appeal to be based on so-called fresh evidence, saying there was a "moral obligation" to assess whether new evidence would have affected the original verdict.

"If the exoneration is there, it's all been worth it,'' Truscott told a crush of media as he made his way into court Wednesday morning. "We're quite confident.''

A new twist in this case is television cameras are broadcasting the appeal court's proceedings for the first time ever.

Truscott welcomed the cameras, saying anything that made the process more transparent is "excellent."

"As taxpayers, everybody should be glad to have it open," he said.

Asked what had kept him going all these years, Truscott said: "Right here, my wife and my family and all of the supporters all over the country."

With a report from CTV's Lisa LaFlamme and files from The Canadian Press