David Milgaard, the man who spent over two decades in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, has died. He was 69.
Milgaard was convicted as a teenager for the 1969 rape and murder of Gail Miller, a nurse in Saskatchewan, on her way to work. He was sentenced to life behind bars.
“He was very complex. He was a young prison David, a more mature prison David, and then a free person,” said David Asper, who was Milgaard’s lawyer from 1986 to 1992, when he was eventually released.
“But one thing that transcended all of those Davids was a tremendous, not just survival instinct, but resiliency.”
It took 23 years, the introduction of DNA evidence, tireless work by his legal team, family, and other advocates for the court to throw out his conviction, and another five years to be officially exonerated.
The Saskatchewan government later issued Milgaard a formal apology and awarded him a $10-million compensation package.
“He was constantly having to not just evolve, but overcome. And it was very difficult to experience with him,” Asper said. “We were never sure he was going to be released.”
During and after his incarceration, Milgaard became a champion for the wrongfully convicted. Inside the prison he started something called the Justice Group.
“So the fact that he continued with advocacy and caring about others after he was freed is not surprising,” Asper said.
In his later years, Milgaard helped raise awareness about wrongful convictions and demanded action about the way Canadian courts review convictions.
“I think it’s important for everybody, not just lawyers, but for the public itself to be aware that wrongful convictions are taking place and that these people are sitting right now, behind bars and they’re trying to get out,” he said in 2015. “The policies that are keeping them there need to be changed. The wrongful conviction review process is failing all of us miserably.”
Milgaard’s legacy is still unfolding, says James Lockyer, a Toronto-based lawyer and co-founder of Innocence Canada.
“He was a pioneer in terms of trying to create an independent tribunal to address claims of wrongful conviction through the Department of Justice in Ottawa,” Lockyer said. “We’re all going to miss him terribly.”
Lockyer said Milgaard and himself had met with federal justice minister David Lametti only two years ago to advocate for the creation of that independent commission and “I know David had a huge impact on the minister when we met.”
“A lot of (David Milgaard’s) legacy is in the hands of the minister, David Lametti, who’s still the minister, to create the independent tribunal,” Lockyer said.
Lockyer said he had visited Milgaard at his home in Calgary about six weeks ago. “He was his usual happy self,” talking about the need for an independent commission and current claims of wrongful conviction in Canada.
When he heard about Milgaard’s death on Sunday, Lockyer said he was just leaving a prison in British Columbia, where he had been visiting a woman whose wrongful conviction claim Milgaard had referred to him.
“I’m going to carry on doing what David wanted me to do, so there’s a legacy too.”
— With files from Brenna Owen.