Hike sentence

After a life sentence for a murder David Milgaard did not commit, a life dedicated to pursuing justice for others

David Milgaard, who was wrongfully convicted of murder, finds peace at his home in Cochrane, Alberta on May 22, 2019.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

I was sitting in a crowded little bar in Moose Jaw last week. It was late Friday night, a prairie scene almost too stereotypical of Canada. Glasses of beer glowed amber on the tables around us, hockey players looped endlessly on the televisions above. A rowdy crew of country boys filled the room with their laughter and noise. Outside, the Saskatchewan sky dawned dark and vast.

I was with my family, feeling happy and joyful after two years apart, when through the ruckus of the bar, I heard the mournful voice of the late Gord Downie. Twenty years for nothing, well that’s nothing new, he sang. Also, nobody cares about something you haven’t done. A Canadian icon, singing a Canadian tragedy: The Wrongful Conviction of David Milgaard. For a while, our conversation turned dark, as the conversation always seems when David’s story comes up.

“It’s terrible what happened to him,” my aunt said, shaking her head.

Over the past few years, I had been in touch with David often, and he had texted me the night before. Two days later, on this same trip, I would hear the shocking news that he had suddenly fallen seriously ill. He died on Sunday May 15 at the age of 69.

The news of his death reverberated throughout the country, deeply upsetting those who knew him personally, as well as many who did not know him. David had been arrested, charged and wrongfully convicted for the murder of Saskatoon nursing assistant Gail Miller in 1969, and the fight for his release, exoneration and compensation – and eventual investigation into his case – turned spanning four decades. David’s story had been so long and so far-reaching that for many Canadians – and perhaps especially those of us on the Prairies – it felt like he was still there, the struggle of his life going on in the background of our own lives. To like wheat kings, the song about his life, played amidst the hustle and bustle of a crowded bar.

I had an extra connection. My parents purchased my nursery home from David’s parents, when they moved closer to Stony Mountain Penitentiary after his sentencing. Over the years, I used to think of that fleeting overlap between our two families, the memories and moments held within the walls of a little white bungalow.

There are other wrongfully convicted people in Canada, but David is arguably the best known.Courtesy of David Milgaard

I met David after I was asked to host an event with him at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg in the spring of 2019. The 50th anniversary of his arrest was approaching, and after the event I asked David s would let me write a profile of him. I thought it would be an interesting time to reflect on his life and show people how he was doing.

I had seen firsthand what a profound effect David and his story still had. I felt it myself and I could see it clearly in others. From the stage, I watched people in the audience wipe away tears as he spoke. Afterwards, a crowd of people gathered to thank him, to tell him how much he and his mother had inspired them, how they had always believed in his innocence. Among them were Brian Anderson and his family, who worked to overturn Mr Anderson’s own murder conviction in 1973.

David told me he should consider whether he wanted to do an interview. He didn’t particularly like the attention, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to show himself again. A few days after the panel, he called and told me I could come to his place outside of Calgary.

I stopped by David’s townhouse in Cochrane on an overcast spring morning. It was exactly three years ago. May 21, 2019.

David was waiting for me at the front window. I had seen his face so much in the news that it was deeply familiar, as if I had known him before he even opened the door.

His place was simple and modest. By then he had separated from his wife, Cristina, and there was just enough space for him and his children, Robert and Julia, then aged 13 and 11. He had long since lost all the money he had received in compensation, some spent on himself and his travels, but most of it donated, misinvested, or defrauded by people who took advantage of him.

I could see how easily this happened. For someone who had survived so long, there remained an obvious vulnerability towards David. He had been a boy when he had been arrested and taken from the ordinary world, a man when he had returned to it. He had lost so much. Getting out of jail was an experience he often compared to being on the moon.

There are other wrongfully convicted people in Canada, but David is arguably the best known. This is largely due to his mother, Joyce, who made them both so public, pushing her son’s story in front of every reporter, every politician, every Canadian with such persistence that no one could look away even if he wanted to.

But there was also something about David himself that was deeply connected to people. I have sometimes wondered if it was the sheer scale of injustice that touched people so deeply, the very idea of ​​an innocent person spending 23 years in prison for such a heinous murder. Or if maybe it came from a sense of collective guilt, because so many people saw he was innocent long before it was proven by DNA.

Or maybe because, even though he left Stony Mountain 30 years ago, it was clear that David Milgaard would never truly be free.

His first years out of prison were difficult and the country saw him stumble. But even later, once he quits drinking and regains some stability, there remains a palpable grief.

I remember all the notes around his house, reminders of the things he was trying to do, the way he was trying to be. A page of “challenges” lay on the kitchen table. Third on the list was “take care of me”.

I spent two days with David. We talked, delivered lunches to his children at school, walked along the train tracks near his home. Agreeing to talk to me was an act of trust and courage. David’s life and case had been widely documented over the previous 50 years, sometimes well, sometimes badly and inaccurately.

When the story came out, David called to say how touched he was that people still cared.

After this interview, David and I spoke and texted regularly. When Joyce passed away in March 2020, I wrote her obituary for The Globe. Sometimes David sent me humorous videos, or music he was listening to: Tim McGraw’s Humble and kind and a version of Bob Dylan I will be released. He often sent me pictures of himself. In one, he rides a horse through the snow, with mountains in the background and dark clouds sweeping across the sky. In others, he’s dressed in a suit for a webinar, going for a walk, showing off his beard to get my opinion on it.

But the thing he wanted to talk about most, always, was the creation of an independent review commission to look into possible wrongful convictions in Canada. He believed deeply in the importance of this, and over the time that I have known him he has grown increasingly frustrated that, despite positive signs here and there, it still hasn’t happened.

For the past two years, he had also been very focused on the case of Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance, two sisters from Saskatchewan who served nearly 30 years for a murder their cousin confessed to committing. David publicly and privately pleaded for their freedom.

“WHEN is your story coming out,” he wrote to me, more than once, while I was working on a story about the sisters’ case. The idea of ​​wrongfully convicted people being in prison was excruciating to him. He insisted that the sisters must be released “NOW”.

He was passionate about these causes – relentless, even, a trait he no doubt learned from his mother and tried to emulate. But it was not easy for him. Even after decades out of prison, after all those multitudes of speeches, interviews, and events, it was deeply painful for David to talk about those parts of his life. I could see how hard he was working not to let his anger overwhelm him.

During our interview in 2019, David told me that he continued to make public appearances because he needed the money he received from them, but also because he felt compelled to do everything he could for other wrongfully convicted people.

“How could I not help? ” he asked me. His eyes searched mine for an answer.

He told me that at almost every two public events, a mother would come forward and say that her son or daughter had been wrongfully convicted and plead for her help.

“And it’s really difficult,” he said. “Because they don’t seem to realize it, you know, David Milgaard is just a human being. That there really isn’t much I can do to help their son or daughter in the situation they find themselves in.

Maybe that’s another part of what was so deeply tied to people. How, even after everything he had been through, he still wanted to fix things.

But where his mother had appeared indefatigable, it was obvious to me that David was tired. In April, he sent me a report about his plans to end his advocacy work. I told him I was glad he could make that choice, if it felt right for him and his children.

“I do it because I feel like I can’t live without it,” he told a Saskatoon Star Phoenix reporter. They were speaking on the 30th anniversary of his release from prison. “And at the same time, I feel like I have to go because I really have to give what’s left of my life to my family.”

He died exactly four weeks later.

I learned of his death as I was about to leave my hotel room in Moose Jaw on Sunday. The news left me stunned. It seemed way too soon, such an unjust and unjust ending after everything he had been through. As a friend of mine said, “You would have thought he would have to live at least to 100 to make up for lost time.”

The last message David sent me was about Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance, and the ongoing work to get them released from their life sentences. Before that, he had sent a photo of himself. In this one, he wore a gray and white toque and a short, shaggy beard. He was sitting in a car. I don’t know where he was going, but he had a slight smile. And he looked happy.