‘Is it really 50 years?’ David Milgaard on justice, faith and freedom, In 1969, he was arrested for a murder he didn’t commit, and spent 23 years in prison as an innocent man. Today, David Milgaard talks about living in the shadow of a wrongful conviction, and what it means to be free by Jana G. Pruden, August 3, 2019, The Globe and Mail
Mr. Milgaard is 67 years old. His name, like his face, is deeply familiar, a part of our history and our culture. His story is one of Canada’s most egregious wrongful convictions, and it is never out of the news for long, even now. On the day I arrive at his townhouse outside Calgary, it is almost 50 years to the day since he was arrested and charged for a murder he didn’t commit.
“Is it really 50 years?” he says, when I mention the anniversary to him, and he pauses for a moment to do the math. Then his voice grows soft.
It is difficult for him to talk about even now. But he knows he cannot stay silent.
“I just feel sad, you know, that the situation has been in my life the way that it has for so long,” he says. “And I wish it wasn’t that.”
Saskatoon police issued a warrant for Mr. Milgaard on May 26, 1969, and he turned himself in four days later in Prince George. It was a Friday, the spring before the Summer of Love. The story of his arrest ran on the front page of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix alongside pictures of the Earth taken during Apollo 10, the “dress rehearsal” for the first moon landing, then still to come. He was 16 years old.
In Saskatoon, the police department investigating the murder of young nursing assistant Gail Miller was already battling allegations of police brutality and “irresponsible conduct.” Amid that scrutiny, the arrest of Mr. Milgaard was a win, a huge step forward in a case that had profoundly disturbed and upset the Prairie city for months: A young woman sexually assaulted and murdered on her way to work, her body discarded in a snowbank in the cold.
He was found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison. But Mr. Milgaard steadfastly declared his innocence, and his mother, Joyce, believed him. For the next 23 years, she fought tirelessly to see him released, and then worked seven years more for him to be exonerated and compensated.
The real killer, Larry Fisher, was arrested for Ms. Miller’s murder in 1997, after evidence sent by Mr. Milgaard’s defence team to England for DNA analysis linked Mr. Fisher conclusively to the crime. Mr. Fisher died in prison in 2015.
His settlement money is long gone. The bulk split between the lawyers’ payments and a gift to his mother, who for decades gave everything she had to fight for him….
The thing David Milgaard wants you to know is that it could have been you. That it could be you. He wants you to know that this story isn’t just about what he’s been through – 23 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, then 27 more dealing with the consequences – but that it could just as easily be your story. It could be the story of your friend or your brother or your wife or your son, charged and tried and convicted and sentenced for something they did not do.
He wants you to know that there are people in prison right now who are facing the same thing he faced, innocent people kept in cages while the true perpetrators are out there, free. And, most important, he wants you to care enough about the wrongfully convicted that measures will be taken to protect them, in ways that he himself was not protected.
“I would have been freed 15 years earlier, maybe even more. I was 17 when they had information on Larry Fisher,” he says, his voice growing tight. Then he stops. “I’m upset now.”
The anger is always there, waiting in pockets of his memory. By now, he knows to watch for it, to tamp it back down when it comes. It is guaranteed in certain situations. In a room full of the wrongfully convicted, it comes out quickly. The anger is part of their shared reality, the almost unimaginable experience of being held responsible for something you did not do.
Mr. Milgaard says he would never admit to doing something he didn’t do, and he maintained his innocence even though it meant he would be denied parole.
At one point, he was believed to be the country’s longest-serving inmate, serving far longer as an innocent man than he would have if he accepted responsibility for the crime.
Mr. Milgaard was 39 when he walked out of Stony Mountain Institution on April 16, 1992, carrying everything he owned in two duffel bags and four cardboard boxes, and telling reporters: “It feels good to be out forever.”
But the reality proved more complicated. He’d grown up inside prison, been there most of his life by then, and he says getting out felt like landing on the moon.
Everywhere he went, Mr. Milgaard felt like people were looking at him. At that point, he’d not yet been exonerated, with the Supreme Court saying only that he should have a new trial. Police and justice officials in Saskatchewan either maintained he was guilty of the murder, or said the matter should simply be put to rest. “There’s nothing more to be done with it,” Robert (Bob) Mitchell, then Saskatchewan’s attorney-general, said at the time. “It is something I think we should all just try to put behind us and carry on with life.” [How vile he speak such hideousness for others! Speak for your frac’n self Mr. ex-AG!]
But while wrongful conviction stories have proved popular fodder for true-crime podcasts and documentaries, organizations that advocate for the wrongfully convicted, such as Innocence Canada, struggle for funding, and the formation of an independent board of review seems to Mr. Milgaard to find little traction or political will.
“It’s more than frustrating,” Mr. Milgaard says. “I am so upset inside my heart, that these people, the senior administrators of justice in this country, are unable to see the truth in this situation.” [Unable? Or unwilling? It seems wrongful convictions are mighty handy to the establishment and their puppets in politics.]
“Joyce Milgaard fought everyone for me. Without her, I would still be in prison, rotting away,” he says. “I don’t know where a person gets that inspiration, that sense of direction.”
A few of the comments:
This is an excellently written story, and David’s mother certainly deserves a large portion of the credit for his release, exoneration and compensation, but a story about a man freed on the basis of excellent lawyers’ work should say more about that part of his saga than merely saying his defense team sent DNA to England and that they were, it’s implied, well-compensated for winning David’s release. The part of the story that needs to be included credits Hersh Wolch for convincing the SCC that Milgaard was wrongfully convicted. “Wolch represented Milgaard in an inquiry into his wrongful conviction, which contributed to a somewhat unusual history between Wolch and the Supreme Court of Canada. He has the rare distinction of having called evidence before the Supreme Court while conducting the Milgaard Inquiry. … Wolch achieved the only successful review of its kind in the history of the Supreme Court. …[He] reshaped how the legal system in Canada operates in terms of minimizing the risks of wrongful convictions…” — Wikipedia
Hersh Wolsh died two years ago.
It really is horrifying that the police knew that an actual known rapist and killer was in the area at the time, yet they chose to pick on Milgaard instead. The crown must have known this, but chose to ignore that reality in favor of less than circumstantial evidence.
Government agents are given enormous power, and when it is abused (negligently or intentionally) to the point where it results in convictions, I think it is reasonable that those agents should be liable for exactly the same sentence they imposed upon the suspect. How else does government abuse end? [Excellent idea that needs to include judges and regulators, eg Supreme Court of Canada justices and AER knowingly publishing lies with which to harm already suffering citizens]
Civilization, and the justice system,are works in progress, but it is no longer acceptable for police agents, and crown or military prosecutors, to say “we did the best we could with the evidence at hand…”
The idea that a judge can take what amounts to an accusation and allow it to be turned into a conviction on absolutely circumstantial evidence says something needs to be done regarding ” guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“In the emerging wrongful conviction case of Glen Assoun, who was released after 17 years in prison, a recommendation for a new trial has been reported to have sat without action for 18 months, and a report as early as 2014 showed there had likely been a miscarriage of justice.”
For all you Raybould fans here pushing this hard nosed legal illiterate, as Trudeau’s victim, keep in mind that not only hadn’t she ever heard of Milgaard, but she made sure Assoun spent another two years in jail.
Note not a word of mia culpa at the Globe connecting it’s star Raybould to this incredible travesty of justice, one that makes SNC look like a dispute amongst schoolgirl lemonade sales teams.
Shame on the Globe’s owner and noted Fascist David Thomson for his promotion of this malevolent women’s hissy fit, as a means to elect Scheer, just like his American counterparts did using Hillary’s emails to elect Trump.
Shame on all you that bought into it – Fool me once?
Just a quick aside, the summer of love was 1967, not 1969 – please fix that.
A sad story of incompetent police work by officers and crown attorney’s who knew someone else did it. How come they don’t have to spend time in jail for their crime of suppressing evidence that showed Milgaard did not to it?