SASKATCHEWAN — Decades after David Milgaard’s wrongful conviction, the question lingers: ‘who is responsible?”
Right up to his death in May, David Milgaard wasn’t satisfied with the results of Saskatchewan’s public inquiry into his wrongful conviction and maintained there was a cover-up, which he said the inquiry failed to expose.
Milgaard spent almost 23 years in prison for the rape and murder of Saskatoon nursing assistant Gail Miller before DNA evidence exonerated him. Milgaard insisted that the Crown and police knew he was innocent but buried the truth to save themselves, their careers and their reputations.
“I believe the prosecutor himself somehow really knew what was going on in this situation and more for his own self-preservation than anything else, he decided to continue to suppress this information,” Milgaard told SASKTODAY.ca in a phone interview in October 2021.
“Rather than bring out the truth about [Fisher] and free me from prison they suppressed the truth,” said Milgaard. “It was terrible what they did to me."
Milgaard was exonerated after DNA evidence proved he didn’t commit the crime and identified serial rapist Larry Fisher from North Battleford as the real killer.
The Exoneration of David Milgaard: His Journey to Freedom
In October 2021, David invited me to attend the webinar The Exoneration of David Milgaard: His Journey to Freedom, which was presented by International Wrongful Conviction Day Alberta.
I first met David in June 2021 a few weeks after I did a piece from a Zoom media conference that David had participated in about sisters Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance, for whom he had been tirelessly advocating. David had seen my story in several publications online and called newspapers in Saskatchewan trying to find me. An employee at one of the newspapers sent an email to my editor saying that David Milgaard wants Lisa Joy to call him, and provided his cell number. My editor forwarded me the email and a week later I called David.
We hit it off and that day we had the first of many long conversations. He would tell me about his hopes, his dreams, and his plans for his and his children’s future. Several times David told me he wanted to “step back” from his advocacy work.
In June 2021, when David was travelling through Saskatchewan from Alberta to Manitoba, he asked if we could meet. We spent a day together. He shared his advocacy work and told me about his two children. He was proud of Julia’s high marks in school and Robert’s sense of social justice.
David was spontaneous. He said, “Let’s go on a picnic.” I said, “It’s too hot.”
It was, but if I could turn back time I would have gone on the picnic.
David and I continued to communicate after we met. He would send me selfies and photos.
In August 2021, he sent me a selfie with his beard and said, “One year ago….I liked my beard..ya or nay?” I replied, “Definitely the beard, keep the beard.”
On Sept. 30, 2021, my cell pinged at 5:18 a.m. with a message from David. He was in Halifax and had sent me a photo of himself wearing a suit while giving a justice talk to Dalhousie University law students the day prior.
One Sunday morning in August 2021, David called and asked me to meet him in Alberta that day. I said “today?” He said, “Yes, I made something for you and I want to give it to you. It’s a surprise.” I told him I would think about it, and he replied, “Don’t take too long thinking about it,” adding that he didn’t want to wait all day for an answer. He said to let him know within an hour.
An hour later I texted him saying I wasn’t able to meet him in Alberta. I often wonder what he had made me.
He would send me songs, like “Over my Head” by Fleetwood Mac and songs by Bjork. He included me in fun, anecdotal emails he sent to a small group, saying things like “Thought this would make some of you laugh! David.”
David often boasted that he was with a lot of women. It seemed like he was still a child of the sixties when he embraced the era of uninhibited casual and free love. This aspect of his youth was used against him by the system with both Saskatchewan’s 2005-06 public inquiry into his wrongful conviction and his 1970 murder trial attacking and tarnishing his character as they highlighted his teen years of youthful indiscretions.
After David got out of prison almost three decades later, it seemed as if he was somehow still stuck in the 60s era of free love. Then again, the book, When Justice Fails: The David Milgaard Story, revealed that when David was released from prison, countless women he didn’t know threw themselves at him sending him panties and offers of sex. That free love attitude never seemed to leave David, even when he was in his late sixties.
David and I continued our telephone and text conversations discussing his wrongful conviction at length. He made it clear he still wanted those responsible for his wrongful conviction to be exposed and held accountable.
David knew I was working on this in-depth piece and video about his wrongful conviction and the alleged cover-up. He was eager to see it completed. Every once in a while, I would update him saying, “It should be up soon.”
But it wasn’t soon enough because he died before I could get this piece online.
Milgaard wrongfully convicted of Gail Miller’s murder
Just after dawn on Jan. 31, 1969, a schoolgirl discovered the lifeless body of 20-year-old Saskatoon nursing assistant Gail Olena Miller face down in the snow in an alley behind 211 Avenue N South in Saskatoon’s west side Pleasant Hill district. It was -42C and a thick greyish haze lingered in the bitterly cold air.
That fateful Friday morning, Gail Miller’s life ended on her short one-and-a-half block walk from the boarding house where she lived at 130 Avenue O South, to catch a bus at the corner of 20th Street and Avenue O, on her way to work at Saskatoon City Hospital. She was raped and stabbed repeatedly in the back and chest with a small paring knife, which was found under her body.
The story of her death started small — a few paragraphs buried inside the pages of a Saskatoon newspaper — but evolved into one of Canada’s most talked about justice stories after a youth was arrested and wrongfully convicted.
That youth was David Edgar Milgaard.
Milgaard arrives in Saskatoon the morning of Miller’s murder
A footloose 16-year-old David Milgaard had arrived in Saskatoon from Regina the morning of Miller’s murder. He was travelling in a car with Nichol John and Ron Wilson. The three teenagers went to the home of their friend Albert “Shorty” Cadrain at 334 Avenue O South.
Shortly after noon the three teens, along with Cadrain, left Saskatoon headed for Alberta. Little did they know that Larry Fisher — who was living in the basement suite below Cadrain’s home — had murdered Gail Miller that morning.
Four months after the murder, on May 30, 1969, Milgaard was arrested. On Jan. 31, 1970, after a 12-day jury trial consisting of 11 men and one woman, Milgaard, then 17, was wrongfully convicted of raping and murdering Miller and sent to Canada’s toughest prisons for life.
Holding power to account: Who was responsible for David Milgaard’s wrongful conviction?
Saskatchewan held a public inquiry from January 2005 to December 2006 into David Milgaard’s wrongful conviction for rape and murder.
The two-year inquiry consisted of 341,634 pages and 114 witnesses. It produced 40,774 pages of transcript and more than 3,000 exhibits.
More than 50 years later, however, the question “Who is responsible?” has never been answered.
“It was a dreadful public inquiry,” said James Lockyer, lawyer and co-founder of Innocence Canada during an October 2021 Webinar.
“The commissioner had absolutely no sympathy for David. The fact that he served nearly 23 years in jail didn’t seem to have any influence on him at all.
“He gave a clean slate to the police, a clean slate to the prosecutors,” said Lockyer. “And so far as blame was placed on anyone, it was placed on David, Joyce, and the media for supposed missteps that they made in the years since Gail Miller had been murdered.
“David’s case is truly as remarkable a wrongful conviction that can be imagined,” added Lockyer.
In May, in response to Milgaard’s assertions that the public inquiry was a whitewash, Ariane Whiting, Senior Media Relations Consultant for Saskatchewan, told SASKTODAY.ca that a commission of inquiry is established and paid for by the government, but is an independent body.
“The Public Inquiries Act guides the Commission in performing its duties without expressing conclusions about civil or criminal liability of any person or organization,” she said. “A public inquiry is not a trial.”
Whiting said the inquiry hears evidence by way of a public hearing and functions in much the same way as a court of law but all of the same rules don’t apply.
“The Commission of Inquiry had the responsibility to seek to determine whether the investigation should have been re-opened based on information subsequently received by the police and the federal Department of Justice.”
The Saskatchewan Government had appointed Alberta Justice Edward P. MacCallum as the commissioner to head the inquiry into Milgaard’s wrongful conviction and Lockyer had represented David Milgaard’s mother Joyce Milgaard at the inquiry.
“It was apparent to me from early on that MacCallum, who was the sole decision-maker, was going to absolve the police and prosecutors,” Lockyer told SASKTODAY.ca in an email in October 2021. “That is why I left midway through [the inquiry] and never went back.”
Milgaard inquiry a ‘whitewash’
Right up to his death, Milgaard criticized the inquiry for not finding any fault with the police, the prosecutor, or the Saskatchewan government, and instead, only criticized his words and actions, and those of his mother Joyce Milgaard.
“What the wrongfully convicted want more than anything else — and you can understand why — they want the people held accountable for doing what they have done to them that is wrong,” said Milgaard during a Webinar in October 2021.
“How do we hold power to account, try to somehow tag them for accountability where they have done wrong?” asked Milgaard.
Cecil Rosner, Adjunct Professor, former CBC investigative journalist, and co-author of When Justice Fails: The David Milgaard Story also slammed Saskatchewan’s inquiry.
“One of the big outstanding remaining questions in this topic is who is responsible?” said Rosner in the October 2021 Webinar.
“The more you learn about the facts of this particular case; what the police did and didn’t do, and what the justice system did and didn’t do, how can you not get outraged?”
Lockyer said those responsible for wrongful convictions are never held accountable.
“I don’t know any prosecutor, police officer, or expert, or anyone for that matter who has been prosecuted for causing a wrongful conviction.”
Whiting told SASKTODAY.ca that determining whether a prosecutor might be civilly liable would depend on several things, including proof the prosecution was malicious, according to the civil test.
“Establishing whether a wrongful prosecution was a crime would require specific evidence of criminal intent.”
Allegations of a cover-up at the highest level
In 1992, The Canadian Press reported that new evidence suggested then-Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow and senior Justice Department officials knew there were doubts about Milgaard’s guilt as far back as 1971.
During a news conference, Joyce Milgaard told reporters that a former Saskatchewan Justice Department employee revealed he was present when her son’s file – and the file of serial rapist Larry Fisher – were taken together into department meetings in 1971.
Private investigator Paul Henderson – a former Seattle Times reporter turned private investigator with Centurion Ministries and Pulitzer prize winner for his coverage of criminal justice, verified the former Saskatchewan Justice employee’s background, reported The Canadian Press. A second private investigator's report hired by a law firm said the employee's information was speculative and based on his opinions and suspicions, reported the Star Phoenix. RCMP investigated the allegations and said the employee didn't work for the Justice Department during the time frame claimed.
The secret meetings allegedly included Romanow, who was Saskatchewan’s justice minister at the time, and Serge Kujawa, a former Saskatchewan prosecutor who assisted with Milgaard’s file and who handled Fisher’s rape file. Kujawa went on to be a backbencher in Romanow’s government.
Kujawa denied the accusations. Kujawa told the Regina Leader-Post: “Cover-up – well, I didn’t cover up a single solitary damn thing. Therefore, you can’t find anything that says I did.”
Kujawa said no one connected the two files until years later. He conceded, however, that Romanow might have seen Fisher’s file because Fisher’s case went by direct indictment. Romanow was away at the time and then-Premier Allan Blakeney signed the order, reported The Globe and Mail.
Kujawa told the Star-Phoenix that he was proud of his role and was angry at suggestions his actions were anything less than honourable.
In November 1992, CKCK TV reported that the RCMP had been called in to determine whether the provincial Justice Department was guilty of a cover-up in the Milgaard case. The RCMP investigated the actions of Roy Romanow and Serge Kujawa dating back to 1971 when they were involved in the prosecution of the case and found no wrongdoing.
In April 1992, a week after the Supreme Court of Canada ordered a new trial for Milgaard, then Saskatchewan’s Conservative Justice Critic Donald Toth called on the NDP government to conduct a full inquiry into Milgaard’s wrongful conviction, reported The Globe and Mail.
Toth accused the NDP of being afraid to hold a public inquiry into Milgaard’s case saying it threatened to expose a decades-old cover-up and potentially embarrass high-profile government members.
“There are many embarrassing questions left unanswered by the Supreme Court’s decision in the Milgaard case,” Toth told The Globe and Mail. “There are dark clouds hanging over our justice system in this province. It would appear that at one time or another someone, or something, went terribly wrong.”
Milgaard’s lawyers released information, which they said pointed to a possible cover-up by police and prosecutors.
“We’re alleging the facts indicate there was a cover-up,” Milgaard’s lawyer Hersh Wolch told The Globe and Mail.
“Mr. [Serge] Kujawa is admitting it – he had the information [concerning convicted rapist Larry Fisher in 1970] and he didn’t disclose it to Milgaard’s lawyer at the time.”
Justice Minister Bob Mitchell had refused to call an inquiry and Wolch suggested part of the reason might be to protect Kujawa, who had become an NDP MLA, reported the Star-Phoenix. Kujawa had assisted in Milgaard’s original prosecution and handled his later appeals.
In August 2006, then Premier Roy Romanow defended the conduct of the Attorney General’s office on how the Fisher rape cases were handled at the time of Milgaard’s appeal.
Fisher's trial quietly moved from Saskatoon to Regina
In December 1971, Kujawa prosecuted serial rapist Larry Fisher in Regina on three Saskatoon rape charges and an assault charge. The trial was moved from Saskatoon to Regina. At the time, Fisher was in jail in Prince Albert.
“There were no media when [Fisher] did his pleas in Regina,” said Lockyer. “After pleading guilty to the Manitoba crimes, Larry Fisher was brought to Regina where he pleaded guilty to four rapes in Saskatoon and was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
“David knew none of this,” added Lockyer. “His appeal was heard. The counsel who argued for the prosecution was the same counsel on the Larry Fisher guilty plea to rapes in Saskatoon and it was taking place in Regina. [Kujawa] had always claimed he never put two and two together.”
Saskatchewan Party MLA Dan D’Autremont told Leader-Star News that it “defies explanation” that the Department of Justice would have just convicted a notorious serial rapist in 1971 and not told anyone. He also pointed out that the justice department didn’t even inform any of Fisher’s victims – or the Saskatoon Police – that Fisher had confessed to the crimes.
The Conservative government also said they wanted to know why the Regina Crown prosecutors dealt with Fisher’s rape convictions 26 years prior by way of direct indictment — a process that allowed Fisher to quietly confess to rapes in a Regina courtroom instead of Saskatoon — without any publicity, reported Leader-Star News.
Romanow said it wasn’t unusual to go by way of direct indictment, reported Leader-Star News.
Whiting told SASKTODAY.ca that while Public Prosecutions can’t speak to the practices and policies that were in place in the 1960s and 1970s without conducting an in-depth historical review, they can provide general information on how these decisions are made today.
She said cases are regularly moved to other parts of the province for resolution for several reasons. Different factors determine where sentencing takes place. Depending on the case, proximity to the place in which the offender is held may or may not be one factor.
In a December 1971 memo Kujawa, then head of public prosecutions, informed then Premier Allan Blakeney – acting in Romanow’s capacity as attorney general – that Fisher, while in jail for other rapes, had just confessed to the Saskatoon rapes and wanted to dispense with the charges as quickly as possible, reported Leader-Star News. The memo was written just weeks after Milgaard had exhausted his last avenue to appeal his conviction for Miller’s murder.
Milgaard’s lawyers had argued that someone in the Saskatchewan government didn’t want too many people aware of Fisher’s 1971 confession to the rapes because it would have raised questions about whether he was responsible for Miller’s rape and murder. Milgaard wasn't in Saskatoon at the time of Fisher's rapes.
“The frightening question about this is, how many people were involved in it,” David Asper, Milgaard’s lawyer told The Globe and Mail in 1992. “Who was calling the shots? And why?”
In 1992, Kujawa told the Leader-Post that the cover-up scenario was “impossible.”
Missing Saskatoon Police files
The inquiry revealed that early in the investigation, Saskatoon Police suspected that Miller’s killer was the same person who had committed two rapes and an indecent assault in the three months before Miller’s murder.
In August 1991, files, which may have had a crucial bearing on Milgaard’s innocence, disappeared from the Saskatoon Police Department’s computerized records system, reported The Globe and Mail.
“Something went on, it’s very bizarre, it’s something that just shouldn’t happen, for every detail like that to vanish,” a Saskatchewan police source told The Globe and Mail. “Somebody’s tampered with the system.”
Four files that involved convicted serial rapist Larry Fisher had vanished. The Globe and Mail also reported that there was a missing fifth file that involved an unsolved sexual assault of a University of Saskatchewan student who told Saskatoon Police that on the day Miller was killed, she was attacked a few blocks away.
The Saskatchewan Police Commission looked into the Saskatoon Police department’s handling of missing files on Larry Fisher’s rape cases. Their report concluded the files disappeared due to human error, which may have happened when documents were moved to another building in 1976.
Milgaard’s lawyers, however, shot back saying they had documents proving that the National Parole Board couldn’t obtain some of Fisher’s files from the Saskatoon Police as far back as 1974.
Saskatoon Court break-ins
The Edmonton Journal reported that a court clerk testified at Larry Fisher’s 1999 trial for the rape and murder of Gail Miller that there were at least three break-ins to the Saskatoon courthouse where evidence from Gail Miller’s murder was stored.
Dennis Berezosky testified that as far as he knew, whoever broke into the exhibit room in 1984, 1992, and 1993, didn’t tamper with the exhibits from the Miller case but he admitted to Brian Beresh, Fisher’s defence lawyer, that there was no way to know for sure.
Fisher, 50, was arrested in 1997 for Miller’s murder after DNA evidence exonerated Milgaard and pointed to Fisher as the rapist and killer.
Milgaard’s friends and travelling companions Albert Cadrain, Ronald Wilson and Nichol John were all under 18 at the time they were questioned by police. In their book, When Justice Fails: The David Milgaard Story, Carl Karp and Cecil Rosner wrote: “now that police had checked out Cadrain’s story, all they had were three largely similar versions of what happened from Milgaard, Wilson, and John. Nothing in their initial statements suggested that Milgaard was guilty.”
All three were initially described as being surprised at the questioning and didn’t seem to be familiar with Gail Miller or the circumstances of her death.
Karp and Rosner wrote that the police then pressured Wilson, questioning him repeatedly and accusing him of lying and threatening to charge him with Miller’s murder along with Milgaard. Police interviewed John repeatedly and asked her the same questions over and over. By the time police were finished with Wilson and John, they had statements that were very different from the initial ones they gave police, and now Saskatoon Police had enough evidence to arrest Milgaard and secure his conviction.
The Crown prosecutor doesn’t disclose information
In 2005, former prosecutor Bobs Caldwell testified at the inquiry that he didn’t know why he didn’t disclose the other Saskatoon sexual assaults to Milgaard’s defense. He said he didn’t recognize the significance of statements from two women – including a nurse – who told Saskatoon Police that they had been groped by a stranger on a street near the scene of Miller’s murder just weeks before she was killed.
Caldwell told the inquiry he didn’t see any significance in the statements of a third woman who was groped just minutes after Miller was murdered and a fourth woman who was chased in the area of St. Paul’s Hospital, which was in the Pleasant Hill area.
Caldwell also testified he didn’t know why he didn’t give Milgaard’s lawyer a letter written to the RCMP by then Saskatoon Police Lieut. Joe Penkala, which described the similarities in method between the violent sexual attack on Gail Miller and the rapes of two other women months before Miller’s murder. Caldwell had this letter from Lieut. Penalka in his file but didn’t give it to the defence, revealed the inquiry.
Other information media reports said was not disclosed were statements from Margaret and Arthur Merriman. Their living room window looked out at the alley where witnesses Nichol John and Ron Wilson said they got stuck while driving with Milgaard on the day Miller was killed. It was during that alleged time they were stuck – between 6:45 a.m. and 7:05 a.m. – that Milgaard was said to have committed the crime.
More police records missing
Documents obtained by the Toronto Star under the Access to Information Act in September 1991 revealed that files on polygraph tests of key prosecution witness Ronald Wilson couldn’t be located. Wilson’s lawyer had planned to have the polygraph tapes of Wilson’s cross-examination by police analyzed by a polygraph expert. This would have supported Wilson’s claim that police pressured him to wrongfully give evidence against Milgaard, Watson told the Toronto Star.
Doesn’t matter if Milgaard innocent: Kujawa
In February 1991, former prosecutor Kujawa was outraged the Supreme Court was reviewing the Milgaard case and called Milgaard a “guilty kook,” reported the Winnipeg Sun.
“It doesn’t matter if Milgaard is innocent of the 1969 murder for which he’s spent 22 years in prison – his case should remain closed,” Kujawa, then an NDP MLA, told the Winnipeg Sun.
“The whole judicial system is at issue – it’s worth more than one person,” said Kujawa.
Supreme court orders new trial for David Milgaard
Federal Justice Minister Kim Campbell made legal history when she asked Canada’s highest court to re-examine David Milgaard’s case. His case was reviewed by a method never before used in a criminal case. Campbell used section 53.2 of the Supreme Court of Canada Act to look into Milgaard’s conviction - the same section used by the government to get the court to consider questions on the constitution.
On April 16, 1992, The Supreme Court of Canada ordered a new trial for David Milgaard.
Former Sask. prosecutor condemns Supreme Court decision
Kujawa condemned the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision saying, “the court yielded to emotionalism by ordering a new trial and recommending a conditional pardon if Milgaard was found guilty a second time,” reported the Regina Leader-Post.
Canada’s highest court ruled that the evidence about Fisher’s sexual assaults against Saskatoon women around the time of Miller’s murder could have affected Milgaard’s trial but Kujawa remained defiant.
“I am totally proud of what I did because I worked at the thing carefully and did my job,” Kujawa told The Canadian Press.
A few days after the Supreme Court’s judgment in April 1992, the Saskatchewan Department of Justice stayed the charges against Milgaard and he was released from prison.
Saskatchewan officials fight Milgaard Inquiry
Shortly after the Supreme Court decision, then-Saskatchewan Justice Minister Bob Mitchell announced Milgaard wouldn’t get another trial as the Supreme Court had ordered citing too much time had passed as a reason. Mitchell also said Milgaard wouldn’t get any compensation and there wouldn’t be an inquiry into how his case was handled.
Prosecutor prevents Milgaard from getting parole
While Milgaard was in prison, the prosecutor in his case wrote to the parole board before all of his parole hearings urging the board not to release him said Rosner in October 2021.
During a phone interview in October 2021, Milgaard verified this and told SASKTODAY.ca that at every opportunity, the prosecutor had some form of representation at all of his parole hearings giving the board the impression that he shouldn’t be released.
In Joyce Milgaard’s book, she said that during a parole hearing in the 1980s, a member of the board blew up at the Milgaard group.
“Looking furious enough to leap over the table in our direction, he screamed about the way that Gail Miller’s body looked and the horrific pain frozen on her face,” wrote Joyce.
“How could we take a chance of letting that happen again?” he shouted. “I’ve seen the pictures of that girl.”
Then Joyce Milgaard said they wondered how the parole board saw pictures of Miller.
“We soon discovered, through our contacts in the system, that every time David was up for parole, Crown prosecutor Bobs Caldwell found out who was going to be sitting on the hearing and sent them a big brown envelope with the pictures of Miller’s body. They were just absolutely gruesome photos, accompanied by a letter describing what a monster David was and why he should never be allowed to walk free.”
Caldwell never did this in any of his other cases, said Joyce Milgaard.
In Caldwell’s letters to the parole board, he told the board that he “came to know a great deal about the personality of the accused, Milgaard.” Caldwell told them about Milgaard’s loose attitude towards sex, saying, “This was only one example of the almost unbelievable lifestyle Milgaard had before Miller’s murder.
“In my view, there is not just a possibility, but rather a certainty, that he will return to crime on his release since he is unqualified for any other occupation,” wrote Caldwell.
“Milgaard is an extremely dangerous and unpredictable person and I for one would not care to be in the position of allowing him to be released from custody on any terms whatsoever during his lifetime.”
DNA evidence exonerates Milgaard
Lockyer said when DNA evidence came into the court system in the late 1980s, Milgaard told him he wanted a DNA test done to prove he wasn’t Miller’s killer.
“It took two years for the Department of Justice to release the exhibit,” said Lockyer.
Semen samples from Miller’s clothing were only available because the court clerk working during Milgaard’s trial was so convinced of his innocence that she ensured evidence was preserved, said Lockyer.
“She had thought David was innocent and so she made a point of ensuring that exhibits were kept and not destroyed.”
Fisher had provided his DNA to the Supreme Court of Canada during Milgaard’s appeal so his DNA was on file, said Lockyer. He added that Miller’s nurse’s uniform had enough DNA from semen to do 1,000 tests.
“It was never examined before,” said Lockyer. “In the past, they [police] were always looking at the dog urine in the snow but never thought to examine the nurse’s uniform.”
The DNA was sent to the United Kingdom and Lockyer was provided the results.
“The result was David Milgaard was cleared and the semen came from Larry Fisher. There was no doubt whatsoever. The results showed to the billions that the DNA, the semen, came from Larry Fisher.”
In July 1997, Serge Kujawa, the former head of prosecutions who handled Milgaard’s appeal, and Bobs Caldwell who prosecuted Milgaard at his trial, finally apologized to Milgaard and called for a public inquiry. They wouldn’t, however, admit to any wrongdoing when they prosecuted Milgaard in 1969, reported the Star-Phoenix.
Private investigators uncover a trail leading to Fisher
In 1991, private investigator Paul Henderson and Centurion Ministry head Jim McCloskey assembled a case against Larry Fisher showing the similarities between his crimes and Gail Miller’s murder. They said they also found evidence authorities hid Fisher’s conviction from his victims.
The inquiry revealed that police were alerted to look for a construction worker wearing a hard hat and who usually caught the bus at Avenue 0 and 20th Street, but was not on the bus the morning of the murder. Fisher was identified in this connection as he stood waiting for his bus, wearing a yellow construction hat. When interviewed on Feb. 3, 1969, he told police he went to work on the morning of Jan. 31, 1969. He wasn’t interviewed as a suspect but rather as a witness who may have observed something that morning and police never followed up to see whether Fisher had gone to work that day.
RCMP take over Fisher file from Saskatoon Police
Despite DNA evidence exonerating Milgaard and pointing to Fisher as the real killer, the Saskatoon Police wouldn’t arrest Fisher, said Lockyer.
“There were newspaper editorials in The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star and other papers demanding that Saskatoon Police be taken off the case,” said Lockyer. “They were after five days. The RCMP took on the case and immediately arrested Larry Fisher as he was driving from Calgary to B.C. They arrested him on the highway. He was fleeing, hoping he wouldn’t get caught.”
Milgaard suffered inhumanity and horror
In prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Milgaard was ill-prepared for Canada’s toughest prisons.
Many initial psychiatrist prison reports described him favourably.
On March 9, 1970, a report said he was a “quiet, soft-spoken individual who impresses as being a person who is extremely depressed but hides the depression behind a smile… He repeatedly insists on his innocence.”
On March 13, 1971, a caseworker, said, “Very difficult to believe that this boy could be guilty of this offence… A defenceless, immature, young man, incapable of facing a life sentence at this time. Deeply depressed, very emotional.”
On Aug. 4, 1971, a prison psychiatrist report described Milgaard as a “frightened young inmate,” adding, “He claims his innocence vehemently and does not appear to me to be the criminal type.”
In March 1972, Milgaard was transferred to Dorchester in New Brunswick.
Not long after, Joyce Milgaard said she “got a letter from a doctor telling us that David had been gang raped and that the doctor was worried this would keep happening if he wasn’t moved.”
Milgaard was also often put in solitary and “guards would entertain themselves by throwing tear gas into the solitary confinement cells David quickly learned to place his head over the toilet and put a towel on it to minimize the burning to his face and make breathing easier,” wrote Joyce.
The hardships in prison led Milgaard to attempt suicide at least three times.
On Aug. 17, 1971, staff found him face down on his bunk with several self-inflicted slashes to both forearms, wrote Joyce Milgaard in her book.
“He had tried to take his life. He put sheets on the floor of his cell to soak up the blood. He noticed he wasn’t dying so he “reached over and pulled a vein out of his wrist and cut it.”
That fall he tried to kill himself again by swallowing wires in the hopes they would tear open his bowels, she wrote. He required emergency surgery.
In another suicide attempt, Milgaard drank leather cleaner, she added.
Twice, Milgaard tried to steal back his freedom.
Milgaard escaped in March 1972 with other inmates, wrote Joyce Milgaard. Their truck broke down and they fled into the woods. Dogs tracked them down.
“David told us the guards just stood there and let the dogs chew on them,” wrote Joyce in her book. “He said that afterward when they got back to the prison the guards beat him. He said he had been beaten before, but never, ever, with such brutality.”
Following another escape, Milgaard survived being shot in the back when fleeing from police after he had escaped in 1980 for 77 days as he grasped at the freedom he deserved, Milgaard told SASKTODAY.ca in May 2021. Toronto Police shot him in the back while he had his hands up in the air after surrendering.
Prison destroyed his mind and soon he needed medications, said Joyce Milgaard.
Milgaard fights for others after being released from prison
After Milgaard was freed in 1992, he advocated for prisoner’s rights, lectured law students at universities across the country, and spoke against Canada’s punitive justice system advocating for a restorative justice system.
Milgaard repeatedly called on the federal government for an independent Criminal Case Review Commission to make it easier and faster for potentially wrongfully convicted people to have their applications reviewed.
Milgaard, and his group, met with Canada’s Justice Minister David Lametti to discuss the commission, and in 2021, Lametti launched public consultations to create the commission. Two weeks after Milgaard died, Lametti announced the commission would be created.
In 2020 — 50 years after Milgaard’s wrongful conviction – the University of Manitoba announced they were presenting him with an Honorary Doctor of Law degree.
Milgaard died three weeks before he was to receive his honorary doctorate of law degree from the University of Manitoba on June 6, 2022.
Winnipeg lawyer David Asper – who led the fight for Milgaard’s freedom – also received an honorary doctorate that day.
“Dr. Milgaard…I’m humbled to be receiving this honour with you,” said Asper during his acceptance speech.
“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.”
Byron Christopher, a former CBC reporter who was the first to get an interview with Milgaard when he was released from prison, said, “Those at David Milgaard’s funeral were hoping the commission would somehow carry David’s name, and perhaps it will.”
On May 19, Christopher – who became close friends with Milgaard – attended David’s private funeral of 50 of David’s family and closest friends
“When I heard David Milgaard had died, my first reaction was shock and sadness – followed by a sense of peace. My old friend was finally free.”
Christopher said even though Milgaard was released from prison – and later exonerated and compensated with a multi-million dollar settlement – he sensed he remained tortured by memories of his time behind bars.
“David was never truly free,” Christopher told SASKTODAY.ca. “Up until his final breath, he remained a prisoner to some degree. In his last years, his 'escape' was to give a helping hand to others.
“David’s ashes will be sprinkled in the Rocky Mountains,” added Christopher. “That’s fitting … The man loved nature, especially fishing, horses, and camping in the Rockies.”
Editor's note: Watch the video at the top of the story to hear and see David MIlgaard speak in his own words and to see many photos of David and his family throughout his years in prison and after he was released.