David Milgaard’s garden sits on the edge of a sweeping valley. It’s not much, but enough for what he needs. Tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries for the kids. Some parsnips and wild flowers grown from seed.
His yard is small but boundless, a thin patch of grass that turns quickly wild, then dips into a valley and stretches out to the horizon beyond. It’s the expanse that made him want to live there. Vast and open. Endless. You can see the Bow River snaking by, and at intervals, trains clatter and squeal on the tracks alongside. He hasn’t always liked trains, they remind him more of captivity than freedom, bringing to mind for him the dark purposes they’ve served in history, how they carried people away to captivity and worse.
“I try not to think about that,” he says. “I’m getting used to them.”
David 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 Friday, May 26, 1969, and he turned himself in four days later in Prince George. 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.
It was a tumultuous time. In California, a group of young people were attempting to seize control of a town and set up “the first hippie government in the United States,” and in a Montreal hotel, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were holding a “bed-in” for peace.
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.
Mr. Milgaard had been travelling through the city with friends, a free spirit and an outsider, a long-haired hippie of the kind that had been questioning the establishment and authority everywhere. "The type of young man who gave police officers the shivers,” his mother would later say, “especially if they had daughters.”
There had been tremendous pressure on police to solve the case. By the first weeks of 1970, Mr. Milgaard was standing alone in the prisoner’s box of a Saskatoon courtroom, watching as the jury’s decision was passed to the judge. He heard his father groan, something deep and guttural, and saw the big man collapsing before his eyes.
“I don’t remember much after that,” David Milgaard says now. “Everything just seemed to fog up and I was lost.”
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.
There were investigations and documentaries, books and movies, even the hit song, Wheat Kings, by the Tragically Hip. An inquiry that lasted almost two years and cost more than the $10-million Mr. Milgaard finally received in compensation.
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.
Mr. Milgaard is waiting at the door when I arrive at his home in Cochrane, Alta., half an hour outside Calgary. His townhouse is modest, but he loves the view and it is what he can afford. 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 rest spent, given away, invested in things that didn’t work out.
He gives me a tour: Living room and small kitchen downstairs, a bathroom and three bedrooms on the floor above, for him and his two children. The house is dotted with their clothes and toys, with notes that record their goals and rules and accomplishments, and Mr. Milgaard’s as well.
His son is 13. His daughter, 11. He and his wife have lived apart for the past four years, and while their custody arrangement is flexible, Mr. Milgaard has the children with him most weeks. He and his wife met in Romania, and though he was married to another woman then, they fell in love. They married in her hometown, then came to Canada for the birth of their son. Mr. Milgaard says they tried hard to make it work, and have been doing better as co-parents.
As we sit down on the couch, he asks me what my name means.
“Gift from God,” I say.
“My name, David, means most loved by God,” he tells me. “But I doubt that. I really do.”
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.
There is anger and frustration at those who allowed it to happen, at those who participated or obstructed or were complicit in your conviction; at those who allowed it to stand while you suffered. There is anger at those who knew the truth. At the real perpetrator, who let you pay for their crime. At those who didn’t believe you. At those who would not listen.
There is anger over what it was like for those you loved, how they were treated and how they suffered, and over what was lost. The days and years, the moments, the relationships that can never be regained. All that beauty and life that happened while you were in a cell.
There are many torments, too many to list even if you wanted to. But Mr. Milgaard says the worst thing was having people think he had done it. Knowing people believed he could be capable of doing something so horrible, and what that meant for him and his family.
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.”
Instead of finally being free, Mr. Milgaard came to feel as though he would always be a prisoner.
He had run-ins with the law and struggled with his mental health, at one point falling into a depression so severe he was hospitalized. He drank too much for a time, until he woke up in a hotel in Kelowna, B.C., one day and realized alcohol was a poison and he had to stop. His first wife helped him dry out, get on track, find steadier footing in the outside world.
For a while, he tried to distance himself from the issue of wrongful conviction, unable to navigate the tightrope between leaving the emotions of his past behind, and his desire – really his need, his calling – to help other wrongfully convicted people.
He says the first time he got involved trying to help a wrongfully convicted person, it was like he was back inside prison fighting for himself, and it became so intense he had to stop. It is a cruel irony that the way he feels most compelled to help is the way that hurts him most.
He travelled – Turkey, Argentina, India, Spain. From a life so constrained, he went to 35 countries, collecting stories about the special moments in people’s lives. He studied astronomy, worked as a community support worker in Calgary, then as a companion. But at some point, he knew he had to go back to the issue that defined his own life, and fight for the wrongfully convicted.
“You can’t do nothing, when you can do something,” he says. His mother taught him that.
This spring, Mr. Milgaard took the stage inside the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. He was joined by David Asper, one of the lawyers who worked to free him and overturn the conviction, and two journalists, Cecil Rosner and Carl Karp, who wrote a book about the case. I had been asked to moderate the panel.
“It’s time for me to wake you all up,” Mr. Milgaard told the crowd, in a speech at the beginning of the event. “This can happen to you. Either you or your children.”
He stressed, as he always does, the need for an independent board of review, which has been recommended in previous inquiries into wrongful convictions, including his own.
The current system, in which government lawyers assess cases and make recommendations to the federal Justice Minister, was established in 1993 in part because of Mr. Milgaard’s wrongful conviction, but the process has been criticized for extremely long delays, and Mr. Milgaard says it’s not working. (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.)
Mr. Milgaard feels passionately about the creation of an independent board to review cases, and it’s something he repeats over and over, believing it could have made a difference of years – even decades – in his own life.
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.”
Speaking events, such as the one in Winnipeg, can be difficult. Sometimes people ask very personal questions, such as his feelings about Mr. Fisher, and one of those pockets of anger and pain opens up for a moment, deep and black. Sometimes, there are families of other wrongfully convicted people present, and it hurts to know he can’t fix everything for them. Whether they expect him to help, he wishes he could. He knows how much they are suffering.
“It’s tough on me. It’s tough on how I feel, even though I’ve done it so many times,” he says. “You would say that maybe it’s not something you would be feeling so much, but, it’s really hard to not feel the emotions. Feeling how bad, how horrible, it was to be inside prison.”
But the money Mr. Milgaard gets from honorariums is necessary to support himself and his family, so he couldn’t give it up even if he wanted to. And there are parts of the talks he enjoys: It feels good to connect with people sometimes, to think that maybe speaking to them could help raise awareness of wrongful conviction or make change. Even give someone else hope, no matter what their own challenges might be.
After the panel at the human-rights museum, Mr. Milgaard greeted the crowd waiting to speak with him. There were old friends and family; others who have been touched and moved by Mr. Milgaard and his story. There was Brian Anderson and his family, who are still fighting to prove Mr. Anderson was wrongfully convicted of murder 45 years ago. Mr. Milgaard signed copies of The Rabbit’s Paw, a book of poetry he wrote inside prison. People waited in a long line to shake his hand, hug him, pose for a picture, talk
Later, Mr. Milgaard went and stared at his own picture on display in the Canadian Journeys gallery. He stopped to gaze for a moment at his much younger self, thinking about the man he was then, so long ago.
Sometimes, in dreams, he’s back there. It’s always mixed up, with time and people and places all muddled together, but always he is back inside a prison cell, fighting to get out. He doesn’t like to call them nightmares, and he tries to focus not on the dreams but on how good it feels to wake up.
The past is always with him in ways large and small, as deeply present as the ammunition that remains lodged in his lower back. He had been out on a pass with family in the summer of 1980 when he went on the run, spending 77 days at large before being shot by the RCMP while being recaptured in Toronto that fall. A doctor told him he would barely walk and never run, but he proved that wrong. When the injury starts to hurt, he tries not to think about it.
Instead, he pushes himself always to look forward, trying to chart a positive direction for himself and his family. He plans to start painting again, and he has an easel and canvas already set up in his bedroom. He wants to exercise more and he’s trying to trim down on a diet he learned in prison. (No bread, no potatoes, no dessert and just a few fries once a week.) He wants to do more for the wrongfully convicted, to press the issue of the independent review board, to advocate for the humane treatment of all prisoners. He always feels he could be doing more.
The kids can be a challenge, and most of all, more than anything, he wants to be a good dad for them. They are his greatest happiness, the thing that brings him back when he feels adrift.
“I work hard to be a good father,” he says. “I work hard for my life to be okay, to be something that I’m happy with.”
This summer, he went on a road trip back to Manitoba with the kids to see his sisters and mother. She is elderly and not the way she once was, but Mr. Milgaard says she is loved and cared for. When he needs direction or help, he still looks to her.
“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.”
It is still not easy for him, 50 years later. But David Milgaard has found that the things that saved him inside prison help him on the outside, too. There is the purpose he finds in his concern for social issues, First Nations and environmental issues; the strength he finds in his faith. There is the hope in the fact that people around the country cared so much about him, and about justice. The love that comes from knowing his story mattered to so many people, and that it matters still.
And there is the place he has found after a long and difficult path. A modest spot atop a sweeping valley, where he can raise his children and look out at the horizon, trying his best to be a steward and a gardener, planting things that will grow.
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