David Milgaard — characterized as someone who became known for something he didn’t do — died suddenly in hospital in Calgary on Sunday, May 15th, 2022.
Canada’s ‘poster boy of the wrongfully convicted’ would have turned 70 in July. No one saw this coming. Even in death, David Milgaard had a way of doing the unexpected.
This blog piece is not just about Milgaard. It’s about victims too. Milgaard was one. Gail Miller, a 20-year-old nursing assistant, was another — one we don’t hear much about anymore.
In late January 1969, the young woman’s body was found laying face down in the snow in a back alley in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Miller had been raped, then stabbed to death with a paring knife. At the very end of this piece, there’s a photo of Gail and some information about her gravesite.
[Courtesy of the Saskatoon Star Phoenix]
Back to David Milgaard. I have known David for more than 30 years and have known of him for more than 50. In the beginning — and we’re talking late 1960s and 70s here — David Milgaard was simply another news story.
We finally met in the early 1990s, after he was released from prison in Manitoba. As the years and decades slipped by, David and I kept in touch, often getting together, usually for no particular reason. The man loved nature, especially fishing, horses and camping in the Rockies.
David stayed at my place, and I stayed at his. We became friends.
David always had something to convey, even if he didn’t say a word. I often wondered, who is this guy? The former prisoner was a living mystery, but hey, aren’t we all?
Scattered throughout this post are photos of David, some old and some new. I’m hoping they help provide a ‘snapshot’ of the man I got to know …
DAVID’S SUDDEN DEATH
When I heard that David Milgaard had died, my first reaction was shock and sadness — followed by a sense of peace. My old friend was finally free.
News of David’s death spread quickly. Every media outlet in the country covered the story. On the day following his death, views on David’s Wikipedia page reached 35,000.
Late Saturday night [May 14th, 2022], David had been camping with his daughter Julia  when he had trouble breathing. “Julia,” he said, “call an ambulance.” An ambulance arrived and took them to the Foothills Hospital in Calgary. David was there for only a couple of hours when he was pronounced dead.
The doctor declared he had pneumonia [which made it difficult for him to breathe, putting significant stress on his heart]. Pneumonia? That’s strange. People close to David have mentioned he had pneumonia.
Family members were quick to say that David did not die from COVID, pointing out he was twice vaccinated against COVID. However, a veteran reporter who interviewed David shortly before he died said David shared he’d taken a booster as well. Was David’s [mysterious] death the result of him taking the COVID vaccine?
I do not know the official cause of death, and I can’t say if an autopsy was done.
David was separated from his wife, Cristina. Even so, after Julia called with the news that dad was struggling, Cristina rushed to the hospital. Mother and daughter were in a waiting room when David crossed over.
Cristina learned that David died peacefully. She got this from the doctor who tended to him. According to the physician, people are often fearful when they know they’re dying — but not David. “He was at peace,” he said. In sharing this story, Cristina added, “David is now in the arms of Jesus.”
It makes sense that David would finally be at peace because his entire life was anything but. The man struggled with a terrible skin condition, got in trouble as a runaway teen and eventually went down on a bogus murder charge. He was also bipolar and taking medication to combat it.
Imagine being 16 and convicted of murder — the most heinous of crimes. That’s beyond crazy.
David recalls standing in the prisoner’s dock in Saskatoon five decades ago. When the jury announced he was guilty of first-degree murder, David turned toward the public gallery and spotted his father, Lorne, sobbing. That shook the youngster, as he’d never seen his dad cry before.
Although David was released from prison — and later exonerated and compensated with a multi-million dollar settlement — I sensed he remained tortured by memories of his time behind bars. He was also upset that our criminal justice system was essentially booby-trapped.
Think a ‘roll of the dice’ when you’re assessing Canada’s judicial system. David was not alone. About two dozen Canadians have been wrongfully convicted of murder. That is not a typo. Two dozen. How’s that for a broken judicial system?
David once shared he’d been in prison so long he started to believe that he did the murder. Let that sink in.
Twenty-two years is a long time to be behind bars, especially when you know you’re innocent. It’s even more complicated when so many people ‘buy into the system,’ believing 100 percent the criminal justice system is above board.
David’s murder conviction was a terrible burden not just for David but for his entire family. The shame and public scorn were something else. It was as though his Mom, Dad, brother and two sisters had been handed prison sentences. They became victims as well.
HIS FIRST INTERVIEW AS A FREE MAN
When David was released from Stony Mountain Penitentiary in Manitoba in 1992, he called me at CBC Radio in Edmonton from his mother’s townhouse in Winnipeg. It was his first interview as a free man. But I wasn’t at work. I was on the road, headed for Saskatchewan to visit in-laws.
However, I left a recorded message for David to talk to my good friend, reporter David Kirkham. The two Davids were soon leading our national newscasts.
David leaving prison for good: Susan, David and Joyce Milgaard. Photo courtesy of the Winnipeg Free Press.
Milgaard was the lead story for several days. What a colossal scoop that was for the CBC. The news business is competitive, and it was a day for taxpayer-funded ‘Mothercorp’ to shine.
David was loyal; sometimes, you’ll find that with prisoners. Cons can have more integrity than we give them credit for. David hung up the phone on a CBC television reporter in Edmonton, the latter tried to scoop our interview after David’s call was put through to the wrong department. The reporter’s initials — Linda Steele.
After our interview, David then shut down all media interviews for several days. No reporter could reach him. It was professional of other media outlets to give full credit to the CBC when using David’s comments.
FIRST FACE-TO-FACE MEETING
David then became a drifter. Less than a year after he left prison, he stood on my front porch in Edmonton — in sock feet. “Where the hell are your shoes?” I asked. David explained he’d traded his footwear for cigarettes. Like that makes sense. This, of course, was years before the man became a millionaire.
David also stunk to high heaven, and he went straight into the bathtub. I could hear water splashing in the upstairs bathroom with David singing at the top of his voice. Guess that’s what freedom sounds like …
You may wonder why David would reach out to a journalist a thousand miles away. Here’s why: Quick story … David was given my name and phone number by Claire Culhane, a respected prison rights activist. David’s first phone call was in the early 1990s. He was curious if a con [McDonald from Newfoundland] had suffered after being shot and killed by guards to end an uprising at a federal pen in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.
I shared with David what I knew — that his friend lived for only 15 minutes after getting hit in the back with a shotgun blast. I also told him that bruising on McDonald’s face came because guards put the boots to him as he lay on the ground.
David phoned a few weeks later with a news story. He revealed he had just fired his lawyer, Hersh Wolch. I recorded the interview — but did not run the story. David phoned the next day, and he was in a panic. “What did you do with the story?” he demanded. I advised David I didn’t run it because he sounded agitated. He was blowing off steam [and firing someone through the media].
“I owe you one!” he said, with joy in his voice. I replied, “You don’t owe me anything. All is good.”
I recall being with David on Stony Plain Road in Edmonton’s west end when he spotted a cigarette butt on the sidewalk. He picked it up, straightened it out, then flicked a Bic lighter and, between puffs, remarked, “I’m not proud …”
“David, would you care to meet a police sergeant/acquaintance?” David would have no part of it; he wanted nothing to do with the police. He figured all police officers were bastards. It wasn’t until 10-15 years later that he said, “You know what, Byron? Police aren’t all bad.” David was making some meaningful discoveries. While the pain of a wrongful conviction was beginning to diminish, I don’t think it ever went away.
I did ask David what it was like not to sleep in a tiny jail cell after so many years. What were his first nights like as a free man? Did he sleep well? He revealed it was difficult to sleep … because the room was too big.
Late one summer night, David and I were booting down the Whitemud Freeway in Edmonton in my old car, a 1937 Oldsmobile. Without warning, David stuck his head out the window and began singing at the top of his voice, his hair blowing in the wind.
I wanted to ask, “What on Earth are you doing?” Then I realized David was celebrating his freedom. The wind rushing through your hair isn’t something you experience in the joint. Or was it because David was bi-polar? I do not know.
David loved nature, horses especially. He once treated me to a long trail ride at a ranch west of Calgary. The man wanted to say ‘thanks’ for believing in him. David loved the trail ride. Not me. My rear end was sore, but I said not a word.
Sonja had lived near Grande Prairie, where she met a nurse who had been a good friend of Gail Miller, the murder victim. Rightfully so, the nurse hated ‘killer’ David Milgaard. Even though she later realized David was innocent [owing to conclusive DNA evidence], the woman couldn’t stop hating the man. She, too, had become a victim … in this case, a victim of brainwashing.
David was married twice. He met his first wife, Marnie, on the street outside a library in downtown Vancouver. Marnie went out for a smoke, and David bummed a cigarette from her. After David’s settlement came in, the couple travelled to Australia.
I recall getting emails from David when he was Down Under. Australia was my old ‘stomping grounds,’ and it was exciting to read David was on a train headed to the Outback. On the way, they stopped at Port Augusta, where I worked at Radio 5AU, ‘Voice of the Spencer Gulf,’ in 1970-71. Small world.
David and Marnie would eventually go their own way.
On a trip to Europe, David met Cristina in Romania. David was full of life and full of secrets. He did not share with Cristina that he’d spent two decades in prison for murder. Not until Cristina sat on a couch in Winnipeg with David’s Mom, Joyce … the two going through a scrapbook … did she realize that David was well-known.
Left: Joyce, Julia, David and Robert watch videos of the children on my camcorder. Right: David is sharing a book on the Canadian Rockies with Julia.
It was in Calgary where David had a bizarre encounter with the police. Sporting a .22 rifle, David strolled through a suburb to do some wildlife hunting. That’s correct. A suburb. Someone spotted a man walking around with a rife and phoned the cops. David was soon surrounded by police — but the officer in charge gave him a break and let him go with a warning.
No charges, no news release. This may be the first time you heard of it.
Police told David he couldn’t walk down the street with a rifle. The former prisoner seemed oblivious it wasn’t kosher. In some ways, David Milgaard lived in another world. But I give the man full credit. Despite his challenges, he did his best and worked hard to adapt to life on the ‘outside.’ Clearly, David was a survivor.
David loved fishing and camping, preferably in the wild. He had a private spot near Cochrane where he often took his children. I dropped by to do a little drone flying with him and the kids one day. Here’s a photo of David and his bandits posing with a flag of New Brunswick …
David always had a soft spot for New Brunswick. It’s strange to say that because he was once incarcerated at the federal pen at Dorchester [near Moncton], from where he escaped in the 1970s with two other young cons. They didn’t get far. The escapees ended up at a farmhouse nearby. The ‘tough’ cons were in for a surprise. The farmer’s wife put them to work doing dishes and cleaning the kitchen floor — while scolding them for swearing.
Moral of the story: if you’re in a penitentiary in New Brunswick, stay put.
I chided David about that escape. “What kind of a prison break was that, Shuffles? “We were just kids,” he shot back. “Give me a break.”
All cons have nicknames, as you can imagine. David’s prison name was ‘Shuffles.’ Given how he walked, it suited him.
It was in the Rockies at a private spot south of Jasper, where David Milgaard, Mark Lewis [Edmonton Oilers public address announcer] and myself set up camp for a weekend. A lot of wood was burned, and there was plenty of guy-talk. Over some cold brew, we solved the world’s problems and traded jokes Hustler magazine wouldn’t touch.
David shied away from talking about his time in the joint. It’s as though he wanted to block it out like it never happened.
We did ask, “Weren’t you shot after you escaped?” “Yes, I was,” he replied, then pulled down his pants to show a bullet hole in his ass. “Know what was strange about that?” David continued. “I first felt the bullet hit my bum, then heard the gunshot.” Good to know.
That’s how David’s second escape ended. He shared that his mother had helped him. Good for Joyce. She knew her son was innocent. Joyce and I once talked about that. Given David’s murder trial evidence, I asked, what made her think her son was innocent? Her decisive response: “I know my son. He would never kill anyone.”
I just love this picture! Mark, David and I were out for a hike. Mark and David look like escapees.
David shuffled to a small stream that ran alongside our campsite. There, he spotted a pair of beautiful mountain trout. Man, he was excited. Every 10 minutes or so, David would walk over to the stream and scamper back with an update … there were now THREE trout! Then FOUR … and FIVE! This continued until Mark looked my way and said, “What’s with Milgaard and the fish?”
I explained that for a prisoner, a fish represents freedom … which is why there were small fish aquariums in the federal joints. They’ve since been removed for security reasons; a piece of broken glass can slit someone’s throat in a fight.
We were short on driftwood for our campfire, and I took it upon myself to chop down a tall, dead tree close by. The tree came crashing down with a thud that sent branches flying everywhere. The noise must have alerted grizzlies 10 miles away. David ran over and said, “Hey, what’s the beef for cutting down a tree in a National Park?” I handed him the axe and said, “Hold this. I don’t have a thing to worry about — but you do. Remember, you’re the convicted murderer …”
Some of our Rocky Mountain visits were in the dead of winter when the temperature was minus 15 degrees. That didn’t stop us from lighting a fire in the snow — yes, in the snow — and enjoying some steaks. David sure loved his steaks; imagine how many he got in the joint.
These pictures were taken in early 2018.
Left: Robert and David … Right: Author and David at a private site known as Negan Wutchee.
A few months after that trip, a package arrived in the mail. David had framed a collage of seven photos with a message: “Byron, I had a good time on our trip. I thank you for it. I hope u like the pictures … maybe we can get Mark [Mark Lewis] to go out that way with us in the future. I plan to take Robert someday too. Thanks, David.”
A CHAT WITH JOURNALISM STUDENTS
In the spring of 2001, David spoke to my journalism class at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology [NAIT] in Edmonton. His talk went over well. The students were surprised that David Milgaard had driven from Vancouver to share his thoughts about journalism … and take their questions.
Gail Miller’s killer, Larry Fisher, died from cancer in 2015 while serving time at a federal pen in British Columbia. He was 65.
I once asked David what he would do if he ever met Fisher. “I’d kill him,” he said. And who wouldn’t feel that way? This is not to say that David wasn’t kind. He was. But people have a breaking point.
Fisher disappointed me on so many levels. He was well aware that an innocent person had gone down for something he did. Why not just own up to it? Now, that’s evil.
Photo courtesy of the Saskatoon Star Phoenix
David had driven from Vancouver to meet my students. He rolled up in a fully-restored American beauty from the 1970s — a Plymouth Fury II. The car was so long it couldn’t fit in my garage; the hood alone was longer than a ‘smart’ car.
David first spotted the Plymouth Fury II in magazine ads while a prisoner, and he fell in love with it. Not to play shrink, but know that prisoners are always ‘escaping’ — in their minds, at least. They do it by reading magazines, watching TV, seeing movies, daydreaming … and by getting their hands on some dope [thanks to the guards].
Speaking of escaping … a private moment worth sharing: During one of David’s visits to my house, I had the speakers cranked and played some tunes off my iPod … when came a beautiful song called ‘Break It To Them Gently’ by Canadian Burton Cummings. I was downstairs, and David was alone upstairs in the living room.
David was unaware, but as I came up the stairs, I watched him dance alone — eyes closed — slowly gliding across the wooden floor in his socks. He was so enjoying the moment. I have 3,500 songs on my iPhone, and when ‘Break it to Them Gently’ comes on, I tear up because I can see David gliding across my living room floor.
Listen to the song, pay attention to the words, and you’ll know why David liked it.
In the morning, David and I walked to a corner store to pick up two copies of the Edmonton Journal. [we made page 3]. “Look at this,” he said, “we’re in the same story!” I shot back, “Well there goes my reputation.” David wanted to mail a copy of the newspaper to his mother in Winnipeg.
I also camped in the Rockies with former journalism student Ian Affleck, mentioned at the bottom of Barrett’s story. One time in the mountains, Ian and I were surprised by David, who’d driven up from Vancouver to find us. He did, amazingly enough — at a winter campsite just outside Jasper.
It was springtime, and there was still ice in the Athabasca River. The three of us were walking alongside the Athabasca, and — without warning — David stripped naked and jumped into the freezing water. Holy shit, I thought. David was under for 10-15 seconds, and for a moment, I feared the strong current had pulled him away, which would have sent him to his death — a plunge over Athabasca Falls downstream.
But David popped his head up and said, “Man, that’s cold!” Affleck looked my way and said, “Now that’s a free spirit!” I told David he might have given a Japanese tourist a heart attack if he’d tumbled naked over the falls. I then asked that he get dressed so there was no chance he’d end up in a British tabloid.
When I contacted Affleck for a comment on this blog piece, he said, “David was genuine, not only a nice guy but approachable and thoughtful.”
A CABIN VISIT
As much as David liked tenting and ‘roughing it,’ he also enjoyed stays in modern, comfortable cabins. One day we booked into a small cabin just outside Jasper. When we signed in, the man at reception recognized David’s name and asked, “Are you THE David Milgaard?” “I believe I am,” David replied. “Well,” the receptionist proudly announced, “in that case, I will upgrade your cabin … no extra charge.” I whispered to David we should do more shopping together.
David and I talked about his involvement in several wrongful conviction cases and prisoner rights in general, including one in Saudi Arabia involving a Canadian. David talked about all kinds of things, except sports, Jesus, and religion. To be fair, David shared with close friends his relationship with Jesus, and how it helped him. Christina said that she became close to Jesus because of David.
For years, I promised David a cabin stay, and this was it. Here’s a shot of him wearing my Australian Akubra hat at the dining table. Notice the typical roughing-it meal for men … granola bars, chips, peanuts and pie. David had juice. I enjoyed a vodka cooler.
David hit the sack early, climbing the stairs to his bed in the loft. I stretched out on the couch downstairs, turned on the TV and watched a hockey game. The Vancouver Canucks must have been playing because I fell asleep. I awoke around one in the morning with a terrible pain in my left leg … a cramp of some sort that left me unable to move.
The pain was so powerful that I cried out in agony. My scream woke up David, and he scampered down the stairs. “What the hell is going on?” he said, rubbing his eyes. David was quite concerned, and he desperately searched the kitchen cupboards looking for pain medication. The shelves were empty.
The pain eventually went away, and all was good. I later went to see a doctor who felt it could have been a blood clot. Tests showed it wasn’t.
The following day, we travelled the mountain highway [#93] back to Cochrane, and I brought up the painful attack at the cabin. David felt I had a heart attack. I said, “Imagine if I croaked … my Lord, the explaining you’d have to do to the police — and remember, you’re David Milgaard.” David’s response: “I already thought about that.”
SURPRISE VISITS ARE THE BEST
My good friend in Edmonton, Muriel Black, often talked about how David had spent so much time in prison and how his mother had worked so hard to get him out. She had followed David’s case closely and was sympathetic to his plight.
Of course, Muriel had never met David. But that was about to change …
David was in Alberta’s capital, enjoying the rides at West Edmonton Mall. We popped around to Muriel’s place on the Southside. It was a surprise visit; the old gal had no clue we were coming. “Jesus,” she said, as she opened the door, “I’m still in my housecoat … and who’s that with you?” David introduced himself. Muriel stood there in shock.
Muriel soon got dolled up, and we went out for a meal at a family restaurant. The two couldn’t stop talking.
A few years ago I spent a night at David’s townhouse down by the river in Cochrane when David and I snuck off to the Rockies for another getaway.
I could tell David lived alone, just by the state of things. Put another way, no woman lived with him. But hey, the guy was doing his best. David slept upstairs; I crashed on the futon/couch downstairs. Okay, with me. The bed was comfortable, and I slept like a baby.
I woke up to the awesome smell of coffee and the sound of bacon sizzling on the stove. David stood at his kitchen doorway and asked, “How was your night?” “Fine,” I said. At that point, he shared something that topped the cigarette butt story …
The bed frame, David revealed, he picked up for next to nothing at a garage sale because it was bent. And without blinking an eye, he said he had pulled the futon out of a garbage dumpster. “What??” I asked, immediately sitting straight up. “A dumpster???”
Most people would have been reluctant to say their bedding came from a dumpster, but it didn’t bother David. Nice to see the honesty. No one could ever accuse David of being pretentious.
A FINAL MEMORY
At the beginning of this piece, I indicated that David and I went back more than 50 years. Here’s the backstory: I was doing TV news at CJDC in Dawson Creek, British Columbia when I came across an item about a 16-year-old convicted of raping and murdering a nursing aide in Saskatoon …
Author at CJDC Television in Dawson Creek, BC, in November 1969. Photo credit: Loretta Seker
For years, I thought David Milgaard was an asshole. I sometimes wondered whatever became of him — until two decades later, at the Edmonton Institution, I interviewed a prisoner who did time with David. “Milgaard is innocent,” he said. And I said, “Really, what makes you say that?” “Because another prisoner told me he killed the girl — and got away with it.”
He identified the real killer as Larry Fisher, who had been living in Saskatoon at the time. After hearing that, I began working on David’s file [as did many other reporters]. Rumours had already been circulating the kid had been framed.
It turns out that Gail Miller’s panties, stored in a cardboard box in the basement of a Department of Justice building in Ottawa, had Larry Fisher’s semen. It was powerful, game-over DNA evidence. Checkmate.
Over breakfast at my house, I shared with David how I first felt about him. I told him the whole story as he sat at the kitchen table, sipping coffee. I apologized for being so gullible and said I was sorry for being part of the pack.
David stood up, walked over and gave me a big hug. “Let it go, Byron, let it go,” he said. I damned near cried.
David’s untimely death has shaken many of his friends and much of Canada. One person very close to David was documentary producer Lori Kuffner of Airdrie, Alberta. “David’s legacy,” she says, “is that even though he was a wounded soul at times, he believed strongly in restorative justice.”
“David,” she pointed out, “wanted to make prisoners people. His message to the guys in the joint was, ‘I will never forget you.'”
Thank you, Lori, for pushing humanity in the right direction. Please remain in journalism.
To borrow a quote from Joyce Meyer, “Being negative only makes a difficult journey more difficult. You may be given a cactus, but you don’t have to sit on it.”
David was set to receive an Honourary Doctorate Degree from the University of Manitoba in June 2022. Some years ago, David’s mother also received an honourary Doctorate Degree from the same university.
HEAR DAVID SPEAK
In 2016, Ottawa broadcaster Steve Bujold on Down Home Corner interviewed David Milgaard. Courtesy of YouTube, here’s that talk …
WHAT DAVID DIDN’T TALK ABOUT …
David and I talked about many things, especially while we relaxed by a stream in the Rockies. But there’s one thing David never wanted to talk about — his time in the joint. I mean, we’re talking some 22-plus years … one would think he’d have a ton of great stories. But no. I’d pry but each time David shut the door.
I do know that David was sexually assaulted at the federal pen in Prince Albert, not long after he was incarcerated, but he remained silent about that. Perhaps I would too.
And I do know that David stood up to the Parole Board members. One time, he told all three to “fuck off.” Good for David. Keep in mind that he could have been released years sooner had he faked a confession, said he was sorry, was a changed man and grovelled before the government-appointed political hacks. Most people would have ‘cut their losses’ and gotten out sooner. But not David. David knew in his heart he’d been screwed by the system, and it wasn’t going to give it to him again.
David and I often chatted on the phone. He would call about prisoners’ rights, a file he was working on, a talk he was about to give … or just to say hi and “when are we getting together again?”
In the last two years, we traded 800 emails. Last week, I emailed David a short video clip of a place far from everywhere — Edinburgh of the Seas [population about 400]. The village is in the South Atlantic on the tiny volcanic island of Tristdan da Cunha, which doesn’t have a landing strip. One can only reach the place by boat, a six-day journey.
It reminded me of the yearning David had to move to the Cook Islands around the time of his payout. That never happened, but David never stopped wanting to escape.
His last email says it all:
About 50 of David’s family and close friends were on hand for his funeral service at the Cochrane Alliance Church on Thursday afternoon, May 19th .
It was a who’s who of champions for social justice, prison reform and prisoners’ rights.
A touching eulogy was given by James Lockyer, the Toronto lawyer known for providing freedom to wrongfully-convicted prisoners [such as David and Guy Paul Morin]. The attorney characterized David as a man who gave comfort to others even though he was behind bars, one who held no resentment despite a great injustice he had endured, a thoughtful dad who spent time with his children … and a Canadian who went out of his way to make this world a better place.
Also in attendance was Win Wahrer of Innocence Canada, the group that spearheaded the fight for David’s freedom … Kim Beaudin of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples … and filmmaker Colin Bradley, who plans to produce a documentary on David.
Lockyer was one of six pallbearers. The others were Ron Dalton [wrongfully convicted of murder], Greg Rodin [Calgary lawyer], Gavin Wolch [Calgary lawyer], Jamie Nelson [wrongfully convicted of rape] … and the Author [journalist].
It seemed surreal to see David in a coffin, cold and quiet. At first, I couldn’t believe it when I got the word that David was dead, and I still couldn’t believe it when I walked up to his coffin to say goodbye. It was the only time David and I were together and wearing suits.
The pallbearers lifted David’s casket into the back of the silver-coloured hearse. The door closed, and off it went — to a crematorium.
David’s ashes will be sprinkled in the Rocky Mountains. That’s fitting.
A hearse arrives with David’s body for his memorial service. [Photo: Author]
Perhaps David’s death will push the Government of Canada to set up a ‘Review Commission’ to look into cases of questionable convictions. The idea is that the Commission would be independent of both government and the judicial system — yet have judicial powers. In other words, it could get things done a lot faster than now.
Groups such as Innocence Canada have long called for such an organization. So has David Milgaard. The Commission would be government-funded — unlike Wahrer’s group, which must rely on donations and fund-raisers.
It would also be nice if the Commission had the power to put crooked cops behind bars, but we all know that’ll never happen.
Those at David Milgaard’s funeral were hoping the Commission would somehow carry David’s name, and perhaps it will. Fingers crossed that happens.
That, too, would be fitting.
MOVING TRIBUTE FROM ONE DOCTOR TO ANOTHER
On June 6th, 2022, Winnipeg Lawyer David Asper received his Honourary Doctorate Degree from the University of Manitoba. It was Asper who led the fight for David’s Milgaard’s freedom. Many would follow, but Asper led the way.
Milgaard was supposed to receive an Honourary Doctorate Degree as well. When Asper walked up on stage, he paid this moving tribute to his old friend …
“Thank you sincerely for this tremendous honour. Congratulations to all the students here today on achieving this important step in your life journey.
Since part of why I’m here today is because of David Milgaard, rather than doing the usual kind of thing as a convocation speech, I decided to write him a letter that I want to share openly with you.I hope you’ll find some meaning from it partly from my own experience, and, to a much greater degree, from his.
Dear Dr. Milgaard,
While your body might not be with us here today, I know that your spirit is, because I feel it within me, as I have ever since we met all those long years ago.We’re all sad that you’re not here in person and I know for sure that after we walked you out of prison, I never wanted to have to represent you again.But, here we are, me sort of doing just that, and I can’t think of anyone on earth I’d step up for more willingly.
I’m here at this ceremony standing in front of all these people, including Susan and Maureen, and from this day forward, you and me, in both body and spirit, we are the Doctor Davids! I was really looking forward to seeing you today.
The last time we were physically together was as panelists during a conference in 2019. Even though we talked on the phone a few times since then, it always gave me such joy to see you doing your thing, as a free person, in person. The day of that conference you were especially powerful when you walked into the audience with your microphone and reminded attendees that what happened to you could happen to anyone.It was riveting hearing you tell the first-person story of your being sucked up into the criminal justice system. I don’t think I’d ever heard you speak in such a granular and vivid way about how you voluntarily went into a police station, supposedly to assist with an investigation, and didn’t come out again for 23 years.
When we were told that we were going to receive this honour today, together, my mind filled with all kinds of memories and thoughts.You’re so lucky to have had your mom in your corner, and I hope she’s giving you lots of space out there in the netherworld.
One of the memories is about my own mother and how she might be indirectly responsible for us meeting in the first place.She used to write me birthday cards with the inscription “and above all else to thine own self be true”. Its from a speech in Hamlet, and I never really knew why she kept saying it to me every year. It took me a while to figure out why.
You see, when I first got out of law school I really hated what I was doing. What I was doing had nothing to do with the thing I liked best, which was advocacy. One day I looked at myself in the mirror and saw someone who wasn’t being true to himself. I took my mom’s advice and went looking for a job in criminal law. Fortunately, I got hired by a great firm and got mentored by patient, high-quality people.
It was only on the third day of my new job at the criminal firm that I met your mom, in Hersh Wolch’s office. She had a box and a few plastic bags full of transcripts and documents. She was really forceful that you were innocent, had already served 17 years in prison for something you hadn’t done, and that we needed to do something about it.
Hersh told me to read what she had brought, go and meet you at Stony Mountain Penitentiary and then report back on what I thought. I was kind of shocked at what had happened on literally my third day of being a criminal defence lawyer. Seriously, this kind of case, the magnitude of the injustice, and the opportunity to fix it, is why a lot of us went to law school in the first place!
I read everything your mom had brought to the office, which included all of your prison records that were organized chronologically. I didn’t know what to read first, the various court transcripts or the story of your life as told in the cold official-speak of Corrections Canada memos and reports. I started with your prison life and it was agonizing.I know you wouldn’t want me to dwell on that part of the story, but it was my first introduction to you and it ripped my heart in half. It is still an open wound.
When all those people mocked and vilified us, your lawyers, for advocating so strongly on your behalf, it poured salt in that wound every single time, because it dehumanized you as being just another number and voice taken captive by the system. Worse, it was the typical systemic attitude that you and we, by default, were wrong. Sorry, David, but I can’t let that go, even though you did, and are the better person for doing so.
The next step was reading all the court stuff and I devoured it.I could see how, on the surface, you were convicted, but at the same time, something didn’t seem right.It took us a while to unlock it, but I knew from almost the beginning that yours wasn’t a phony claim of innocence.
You probably don’t remember, but we met about a week later up at Stony. The reason I remember it is because I was totally freaked out going into that jail. It seemed so intimidating, which I guess is what jails are supposed to be.You bounced into the interview room and we greeted each other. You immediately started making fun of my chipped and beaten-up motorcycle helmet. Remember? I used to have that Yamaha 650 and rode it when I came up to visit you.
When I think back, I have to say that you weren’t quite what I expected in that big old prison. You were warm, funny and passionate about your innocence. Over the years when you were in there, we shared many moments of dialogue, debate, jokes, anger, depression and sometimes I could see your suffering. How many times did you try and fire me, LOL? We talked many times about you getting parole because I just thought you should do anything to get out of that jail.
You would have none of it and I remember you sucker-punched me one time when we prepared for one of your parole hearings. I know it’s probably all a blur to you but at that hearing, when they reviewed all the petty institutional violations you’d committed since the last hearing and wanted to talk about your admitting guilt and showing contrition, you really showed me what I had gotten in to.
You were defiant and, as I recall, quite rude to all the authority figures. You declared that they and the system would never own you because you were innocent. I didn’t really know how to handle it because I guess my role as the lawyer was to play within the system. You showed me a different way of seeing it. You opened my mind to the possibility that the system was wrong. More than that, just as I got true to myself and into criminal law, you amplified the idea of being true to yourself because there you were, probably able to get your way out of jail on parole, and you wouldn’t do it because that was for guilty people.
You were so true to yourself and your innocence that you wouldn’t bargain it away for a shot at freedom. Man, that knocked me out.
I think it’s really important for us to tell the law graduates to know about being true to yourself.It’s served me well in law, business and community service, and it was a defining strength that got you through and out of your ordeal, and then beyond into your own public service on behalf of other wrongfully convicted people.
Another memory of those early days when we first met was that you were trying to get some university education from the University of Manitoba while inside the prison.
If you were here today I would have loved to walk you around this beautiful campus because it’s where I got a great education.Some of my most influential Profs have passed away, and if you ever run in to Wally Fox-Decent, Tom Peterson or Marek Debicki in the spirit world, please say hi for me.Others, like Paul Thomas, Peter St. John and Grant Cosby are still hanging around on earth and every one of them has meaningfully contributed to my being able to successfully represent you.You would have loved Grant Cosby’s class on Ethics and Society. Some of what we had to do in your case stretched ethical boundaries, and if I hadn’t taken a couple of philosophy classes with Cosby I’m not sure I could have kept my head screwed on straight. Collectively, they taught me about the way the world worked, and without knowing that, we couldn’t have taken it apart as we had to in your case. I’m very fortunate to have had these folks as profs and I really hope that the people who are graduating today will reflect on and also be grateful to the profs who’ve already and will continue to influence their lives.
Dr. Milgaard, these are just a few of my thoughts that come to mind in a short letter, and I wish we had time to be together and go much deeper. I’m humbled to be receiving this honour with you. Nothing I’ve done in my life compares with the triumph of your human spirit.
For whatever the system took away from you in years, it never stopped you from being a decent, caring human being. A son, a brother, a dad, a friend. A beacon to all who need to know that light can overtake the darkness.
If Canada ever gets an independent commission to deal with wrongful convictions it will be partly because of your advocacy. Your spirit will have not only got you through but it will live in the success stories of others.
Congratulations Dr. Milgaard.Let’s hope these law grads head into their lives with a sense of purpose and justice. Let’s hope that they will be true to themselves, honour and put to good use the education they’ve received, and let’s hope that their human spirit will make the world a better place to be.
See you on the Other Side David.
Dr. David Asper”
Clock [manufactured by Metal Unlimited of Vidalla, Louisiana] courtesy of Susan Milgaard.
Gail Miller  … Claire Culhane  …Lorne Milgaard  … Larry Fisher  … Hersh Wolch  … Joyce Milgaard  … David Milgaard .
GAIL OLENA MILLER [1948 – 1969]
Gail Miller is buried in the hamlet of Laura, 58 km southwest of Saskatoon. After more than half a century, the writing on her white headstone is now barely legible. Gail’s father, Milton, died in 1991. Her mother, Jean, died in 1994.