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Canada Hersh Wolch, a voice for the wrongly convicted, dead at 77

Defence lawyer Hersh Wolch worked tirelessly on behalf of his clients. His wife, Justice Sheilah Martin, says ‘Even when we went on a holiday … he continued to work. So our tee time would have to be pushed forward to 3 p.m. so Hersh could finish conducting his business by the pool.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Criminal defence lawyer Hersh Wolch was in the midst of fighting for financial compensation for his client Kyle Unger when he died of a heart attack in Calgary on July 17 at the age of 77. It was the latest in a string of wrongful-conviction cases that he worked on, including the high-profile cases of David Milgaard and Steven Truscott.

Mr. Wolch first made national news when he spearheaded a legal campaign on behalf of Mr. Milgaard, who had been found guilty of the 1969 murder of Saskatoon nurse Gail Miller. In light of evidence linking serial rapist Larry Fisher to the murder, Mr. Wolch and his team filed an application to have the case reopened. Justice minister Kim Campbell consequently took the unusual step of referring the Milgaard case to the Supreme Court of Canada.

On March 12, 1992, Mr. Wolch cross-examined Mr. Fisher before the Supreme Court. His extraordinary efforts to draw out Mr. Fisher were unforgettable, said CBC-TV journalist Alan Habbick, who had been dispatched to Ottawa from his Winnipeg base to report on the event.

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"This was before cameras were allowed into the court, but I really wish that cross-examination of Larry Fisher could have been seen by every Canadian," Mr. Habbick said from his Toronto office where he works as a CBC-TV producer.

"Wolch had this very low-key, unassuming manner about him as he was leading Fisher through the cross-examination and that's why he eventually turned the tables on Fisher. And Mr. Wolch said to him: 'I'm going to suggest to you that you knew her and you took the bus together and she [Gail Miller] was your neighbour. You did this in the same way you'd done it numerous times.'"

At that point Mr. Wolch changed his tone, Mr. Habbick recalls. "He was louder, he was more forceful, he had an edge in his voice. It was this dramatic moment in the Supreme Court, where up to that point people might have been thinking: We know this. We know the details of Fisher's crimes. Why is he going over this?"

Mr. Wolch's canny agenda became apparent as the intense cross-examination unfolded, Mr. Habbick said.

"But then here was this guy who had a very distinct pattern to his crimes and they matched perfectly with the Gail Miller murder. And Wolch had done so much work to prepare to get inside of Fisher's pattern that he was able to paint a picture so closely of how the Gail Miller murder matched the crimes that Fisher had talked about."

The Supreme Court overturned Mr. Milgaard's conviction and set him free after 23 years in prison. Five years after the dramatic hearing, Mr. Wolch and his colleagues introduced DNA evidence, a relatively new technology, which exonerated Mr. Milgaard. The DNA test linked Mr. Fisher to the heinous crime. Mr. Fisher was convicted in 1999 and served a life sentence until his death in June, 2015. Mr. Wolch eventually won $10-million in compensation for Mr. Milgaard.

Hersh Edward Wolch, who was born at Winnipeg's St. Boniface Hospital on April 18, 1940, was just five years old when he started delivering groceries on a bicycle to his Aunt Jenny's food-store customers. Since his family was of modest means, his mother's sister thoughtfully hired young Hersh.

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Hersh's parents, Hymie and Doris Wolch, squeezed their family into a two-bedroom apartment on Scotia Street in Winnipeg's hardscrabble North End. Hersh and Sheila, his younger sister, had to be self-reliant.

Mr. Wolch worked his way through postsecondary school with casual jobs and expert poker skills. He used his game winnings to pay his tuition at the University of Manitoba; he earned his Bachelor of Commerce in 1962, followed by a law degree.

The young lawyer was called to the Manitoba Bar in 1965. He was a Crown prosecutor for the Province of Manitoba (1965-1971), then for the Federal Department of Justice (1971-1973).

Mr. Wolch married Linda Nodder in 1969 and they eventually had five children together: Amanda, Eden, Glynnis, Shana and Gavin. (The couple divorced in 1996.)

Amanda Wolch McNaughton, their eldest child, fondly recalls reading court transcripts as a child and sitting down to family dinners with her father clad in a velour track suit. The typically reserved litigator loved playing tricks with the good cutlery.

Two needlepoint pictures that hung in their dining room were a gift from convicted murderer Katie Harper, who was paroled in 1989. "Dad's clients just loved him," Ms. Wolch McNaughton said, "even when they were convicted. That's how hard he worked for them."

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"When we had a dental appointment downtown, Mom would take us over to the Law Courts afterward to see Dad at work. My sister Eden and I also loved to play 'office.' Dad would bring us to work on a Saturday and we'd get into the office supplies, while he caught up on transcript reading."

Sheldon Pinx, a Winnipeg criminal lawyer, met Mr. Wolch at Manitoba's Legal Aid Society, Mr. Pinx's first job out of law school.

The men were quick friends and later formed a law practice together in the mid-1970s.

"It was a real pleasure to work with Hersh," Mr. Pinx said. "He had such a sharp wit and he loved a good prank. Our office was always a fun place to come to work."

Mr. Pinx recalls an outing when he and Mr. Wolch played a rare round of golf together. "Hersh was a bit of a hacker, so when his ball landed on the green, he was very pleased – until Hersh's golf ball was stolen away by a squirrel. All we could do was laugh."

At work, the two men were intent on developing a top law firm. "Hersh wanted to treat the firm like an NHL team choosing draft picks. We only recruited the top law graduates."

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Greg Rodin articled with Wolch and Pinx. (The firm expanded into Wolch, Pinx, Tapper, Scurfield). In 1986, Mr. Rodin was made a partner. It was a transformative experience for the Calgary lawyer, who worked on the civil-litigation side of both the David Milgaard and Kyle Unger cases with Mr. Wolch.

"Working with Hersh on the Milgaard case was the highlight of my career. And the big commitment to David didn't deter Hersh. He placed a premium on justice."

Among the many lessons Mr. Wolch's young acolyte gleaned from his mentor was the very basic rule of how to run a good practice. "Hersh taught me that if you focus on the client that everything else will follow," Mr. Rodin said. (Mr. Wolch eventually relocated his law practice to Calgary, in 1997.)

The veteran Winnipeg journalist Gordon Sinclair Jr. said he admired Mr. Wolch's ability to get to the heart of an issue. Mr. Wolch's modesty, integrity and commitment to justice earned him widespread respect: "Hersh didn't need the limelight. For him, it was always about the case and the client. It wasn't about him."

In 1989, Mr. Sinclair was at the J.J. Harper Aboriginal Justice Inquiry into the death of the Island Lake Chief at the hand of Winnipeg Police Constable Robert Andrew Cross. (The murder of Helen Betty Osborne of The Pas, Man., was also a subject of the same inquiry.)

Mr. Wolch was in top form when he represented the Island Lake Band Council. Mr. Sinclair, who wrote about the murder in Cowboy and Indians: The Shooting of J.J. Harper, was struck with Mr. Wolch's skill in cross-examining Winnipeg Police Chief Herb Stephen.

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"Hersh got Herb to backtrack on everything. He did a surgical job on Herb. Herb was bleeding all over the place, but didn't realize it. Hersh did this without alienating Herb Stephen or making him feel attacked." The police chief resigned in 1991.

In 2000, Mr. Wolch married Sheilah L. Martin. The couple had met at a law conference and "we started a conversation that never stopped," recalled Justice Martin, who is currently a judge of the Alberta Court of Appeal in Calgary

"Hershie and I were at a criminal lawyers conference in Vancouver the week before his passing," Justice Martin said.

"We caught up with old friends and really had a good time. After the conference was done on the Saturday afternoon we went to the Vancouver Art Gallery. We both admired the same Emily Carr painting. And then we went out for a walk in Stanley Park. That was our last weekend together," Justice Martin said.

"My husband had a huge workload. Even when we went on a holiday to Palm Springs, he continued to work. So our tee time would have to be pushed forward to 3 p.m. so Hersh could finish conducting his business by the pool. Hersh loved his work. And he always made it a priority to take calls from clients. He didn't want them to get anxious if they couldn't reach him."

Mr. Wolch was made a Queen's Counsel in 1982, and in 2015 the Law Society of Alberta recognized him for his Service to the Profession. Justice Martin, who knew Mr. Wolch for 25 years, described him as a calming influence to his colleagues. He was always level headed but fiercely determined.

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When Mr. Wolch proposed marriage, which he did more than once, he finally broke down her resolve with the cheeky pitch: "Will you make an honest man of me?"

Mr. Wolch's "second act," as his daughter Amanda called it, was a happy one. While Mr. Wolch relished his domestic life with Sheilah Martin, he was busy nurturing a crew of Calgary lawyers (which included his son, Gavin), and he doted on his four beloved grandchildren, William, James, Evan and Noah.

"Hersh was so supportive of his children. We would sit down regularly to ask: How is everybody doing? Did they need our support? How could we help? Hersh was a good and dutiful father," Ms. Martin said.

(The couple created a blended family that included Ms. Martin's two sons from a previous marriage, Rory and Sean.)

On the day after Mr. Wolch's funeral service at Calgary's Beth Tzedec synagogue, his son, Gavin, spoke of the practical support his father gave to him and his siblings.

"My father made sure we all received an education. He never pushed me into law. Dad just encouraged me. And I can't ever recall being disciplined by him. He always reasoned with his kids. Dad liked to plant the seeds of new ideas and provided me with the long-term perspective."

Gavin described his father as a gifted mentor who was energetic and filled with hope. "We knew how much he loved us all. We are all so grateful for the time we had together."

"I don't think I ever saw him get angry or lose his composure. He was just so solid. Dad hated time-wasters but he never let them sideline him. He knew how to read people. In court, he could tell just what a judge was thinking."

Mr. Wolch's intense caseload at his firm, now Wolch Watts Wilson and Jugnauth, took a major toll on his health, Justice Martin said. "Hersh had his first heart attack in 1999 when he was just signing with the Milgaard family and the government to resolve matters. Now his second heart attack came at the same time as the negotiations with the Kyle Unger case."

Mr. Wolch leaves his wife, Justice Martin; seven children; four grandsons; sister, Sheila Snukal; and former wife, Linda Wolch.

Mr. Wolch and his colleagues were busy at work on the Unger settlement the week of his death. His son, Gavin, and Mr. Rodin are carrying on with the Unger file. (Kyle Unger was acquitted in 2009 of the 1990 murder of 16-year-old Brigitte Grenier in Roseisle, Man. Mr. Unger has since filed a $14.5-million lawsuit.)

In a letter of condolence to the Wolch family, Beverley McLachlin, Chief Justice of Canada, summed up Mr. Wolch's contributions to Canadian jurisprudence: "Hersh represented the highest ideals of our criminal law system – fairness, equity and a profound commitment to justice for all, whether high or low."

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Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this obituary Linda Nodder's maiden name was misspelled as Linda Dobber. This error has been corrected.
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