Tuesday 15 November 2011

Requiem for a Fourteen-Year-Old

Requiem for a Fourteen-Year-Old
By: Pierre Berton

In Goderich town
The Sun abates
December is coming
And everyone waits:
In a small, dark room
On a small, hard bed
Lies a small, pale boy
Who is not quite dead.

The cell is lonely
The cell is cold
October is young
But the boy is old;
Too old to cringe
And too old to cry
Though young --
But never too young to die.

It's true enough
That we cannot brag
Of a national anthem
Or a national flag
And though our Vision
Is still in doubt
At last we've something to boast about:
We've a national law
In the name of the Queen
To hang a child
Who is just fourteen.

The law is clear:
It says we must
And in this country
The law is just
Sing heigh! Sing ho!
For justice blind
Makes no distinction
Of any kind;
Makes no allowances for sex or years,
A judge's feelings, a mother's tears;
Makes no allowances for age or youth
Just eye for eye and tooth for tooth
Tooth for tooth and eye for eye:
A child does murder
A child must die.

Don't fret ... don't worry ...
No need to cry
We'll only pretend he's going to die;
We're going to reprieve him
Bye and bye.

We're going to reprieve him
(We always do),
But it wouldn't be fair
If we told him, too
So we'll keep the secret
As long as we can
And hope that he'll take it
Like a man.

And when we've told him
It's just "pretend"
And he won't be strung
At a noose's end,
We'll send him away
And, like as not
Put him in prison
And let him rot.

The jury said "mercy"
And we agree --
O, merciful jury:
You and me.

Oh death can come
And death can go
Some deaths are sudden
And some are slow;
In a small cold cell
In October mild
Death comes each day
To a frightened child.

So muffle the drums and beat them slow,
Mute the strings and play them low,
Sing a lament and sing it well,
But not for the boy in the cold, dark cell,
Not for the parents, trembling-lipped,
Not for the judge who followed the script;
Save your prayers for the righteous ghouls
In that Higher Court who write the rules
For judge and jury and hangman too:
The Court composed of me and you.

In Goderich town
The trees turn red
The limbs go bare
As their leaves are bled
And the days tick by
As the sky turns lead
For the small, scared boy
On the small, stark bed
A fourteen-year-old
Who is not quite dead.

*Published in Toronto Star on October 5, 1959.

When I was in elementary school, I borrowed a book from the school library titled The Trial of Steven Truscott by Isabel LeBourdais.  Steven Truscott was a Canadian boy whose father was stationed at the RCAF base in Clinton where he attended elementary school.  On June 9, 1959, he gave his schoolmate Lynne Harper a ride on the crossbar of his bicycle.  After Lynne was found tragically murdered a couple of days later, Steven, being the last known person to see her alive, was charged with the crime.  Incarcerated in the old Huron County Gaol in Goderich (it was so old they spelled jail in Old English) young Steven was sentenced to hang.  Six days later journalist and writer Pierre Berton wrote the poem "Requiem for a Fourteen-Year-Old". 

After reading the LeBourdais book and talking to my parents about the case (they remember it well) I was more and more convinced that Steven Truscott was innocent.  After having his death sentence converted to life in prison, Mr. Truscott was released early due to good behaviour and put on parole. For many years he lived under an assumed name under which he was able to marry, start a family, and hold down a steady job.  Then in 2000 he reappeared on the public scene in a documentary aired by CBC's Fifth Estate.  A new book was written by Julian Sher called Until You Are Dead:  Steven Truscott's Long Ride Into History (2001) which I borrowed from the public library.  In 2007 the Ontario Court of Appeal acquitted Steven Truscott of all charges after an investigation in which new evidence was studied.  A play about the case was mounted in 2008 at the Blyth Festival called "Innocence Lost" written by Beverley Cooper.  The same year, Steven Truscott was compensated 6.5 million dollars from the government of Ontario for the miscarriage of justice.

In the meantime, the Goderich Gaol is now a museum.  Steven Truscott lives in Guelph with his wife.  where they raised three children.  Although he received an acquittal, he will never forget the events of the year 1959 and the words of the judge in the Goderich courthouse on that mild Fall day:  "You are sentenced to hang until you are dead."

Photo courtesy www.cbc.ca.

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