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Hersh Wolch, lawyer who acted in several wrongful conviction cases, dies at 77

Lawyer Hersh Wolch, left, is seen with Kyle Unger outside a Winnipeg courthouse on Oct. 23, 2009.

JOHN WOODS/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Lawyer Hersh Wolch is being remembered for his sharp intellect and his tireless advocacy in some of Canada's most prominent wrongful conviction cases.

Wolch, who served as counsel for David Milgaard, Steven Truscott and Kyle Unger, died Monday at the age of 77.

"He had about the biggest heart and the biggest mind you could ever imagine fitting inside one person," said his son Gavin, a lawyer at the same Calgary firm.

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Gavin said he spoke to his father Sunday night and he was preparing for a court case the next morning.

He said his father suffered a heart attack Monday morning and he's grateful to the staff at the Foothills Medical Centre who did everything they could to save him.

In the week leading up to his death, the elder Wolch spoke at a law conference in Vancouver and was working on winning compensation for Unger for his wrongful conviction.

"He was as vital as you can ever imagine," said Gavin, who described working with his father for the past four years as a gift.

"I can't tell you how special it's been, not just to work with my father, but to work with one of the best advocates the courts have ever seen or will ever see."

Wolch was the patriarch of a big family, with four daughters and three sons. His wife was Alberta Court of Appeal Justice Sheilah Martin.

Funeral services will be held Wednesday at Calgary's Beth Tzedec synagogue.

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Calgary lawyer Greg Rodin articled under Wolch nearly four decades ago and considered him a mentor. They would later work together on the Milgaard and Unger cases.

"Hersh was, in addition to being one of the finest lawyers this country has ever produced, a fine gentleman," said Rodin.

"Hersh was the brightest guy I know and his ability to analyze a situation that might be rather complex if you get too buried in the details was truly amazing. He could really get to the true issue and the solution very quickly."

Wolch was born in Winnipeg and was a Crown prosecutor in Manitoba after receiving his law degree in 1965.

He rose to prominence in the 1990s for his work on Milgaard's case.

Milgaard spent 23 years in prison for the 1969 rape and murder of Saskatoon nurse Gail Miller but was exonerated in July 1997 after DNA tests proved that semen found at the crime scene didn't match his.

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Larry Fisher, another longtime suspect, was convicted in December 1999 of first-degree murder in Miller's death.

The Saskatchewan government issued Milgaard a formal apology and awarded him a $10-million compensation package.

The province also spent $11.2-million on a public inquiry into Milgaard's wrongful conviction. Wolch again served as counsel for the Milgaard side.

"It's never been suggested that anybody was trying to frame an innocent person. It's that they went into a tunnel and they went down that tunnel and they did not deviate from going down that tunnel," he told the inquiry in his closing arguments.

"Tunnel vision, indifference and blind loyalties to the system are recipes for disaster."

Truscott was convicted in 1959 at the age of 14 of murdering schoolmate Lynne Harper and was sentenced to hang. His sentence was commuted to life and Truscott served 10 years in prison before being paroled in 1969. The Ontario Court of Appeal overturned his conviction in 2007 and he was awarded $6.5-million.

Unger was formally acquitted in 2009 of the murder of 16-year-old Brigitte Grenier, who was killed at a rock concert south of Winnipeg in 1990. He was originally found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, but evidence used to convict him would later unravel.

Unger has filed a $14.5-million lawsuit alleging that police and Crown attorneys relied on faulty science, ignored evidence that pointed to his co-accused as the killer and used a flawed undercover sting to get a false confession.

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