David Milgaard was a footloose 16-year-old hippie when he was charged in 1969 in the sex slaying of a Saskatoon nurse, Gail Miller. The Milgaard case was destined to make headlines across the country as it unraveled over the ensuring 23 years, becoming one of Canada's most notorious wrongful conviction cases, and eventually yielding several books and a made-for-television movie.
Gail Miller was raped, stabbed to death and left in a snow bank at approximately 6:45 a.m. on 31 January 1969. Two hours later, her body was discovered. Police quickly sought out known sex offenders in the area to question them but they could find no obvious leads.
That same morning, Milgaard — accompanied by two friends, Ron Wilson and Nichol John — had arrived in Saskatoon en route from Regina to Calgary. The trio stopped at the home of a mutual friend, Albert “Shorty” Cadrain, around 9:30 a.m., to pick him up and continue their journey.
A month after the murder, Cadrain contacted police to report that Milgaard had acted suspiciously during the drive to Calgary. He also said that Milgaard appeared to have blood stains on his clothing that day. Within 24 hours, police located Milgaard in Winnipeg and questioned him. Milgaard denied any involvement in the murder.
Investigators then located Milgaard’s two other travelling companions, Nichol John and Ron Wilson. Their initial police statements provided a strong alibi for Milgaard; both said they had been with him throughout the morning of the attack on Miller and Milgaard had had nothing to do with it.
In May, however, investigators began hearing reports that Milgaard had entertained friends in a Regina hotel room by re-enacting the Miller murder. The police decided that John and Wilson had lied in their initial statements, and brought them in to be re-interviewed. This time, the youths changed their statements, implicating Milgaard in the murder. John went so far as to state that she had even witnessed Milgaard stab the victim.
Milgaard was charged with first-degree murder on 30 May 1969. His trial commenced before a judge and jury nine months later. After the Crown had presented its case, Milgaard’s lawyer elected to call no evidence. Milgaard was convicted on 31 January 1970, and sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for at least 10 years.
Two years later, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal dismissed his appeal.
Joyce Milgaard's Campaign
Throughout Milgaard's incarceration, his mother Joyce Milgaard engaged in tireless activism to draw attention to her certainty that her son was innocent. Possessed of an unerring nose for news and a fat Rolodex of media contacts, Milgaard supplied journalists with a stream of angles in order to keep the story alive and exert pressure on authorities. At one stage in her crusade, she even confronted federal Justice Minister Kim Campbell as television cameras rolled. Milgaard also threatened to camp on the lawn of the Saskatchewan legislature.
In December 1988, David Milgaard applied for a federal review of the case under Section 690 of the Criminal Code — a provision permitting the minister of Justice, after considering fresh evidence, to ask a senior appeal court to review a conviction or to hold a new trial. In February 1991, Justice Minister Kim Campbell dismissed the application. Six months later, a second application — this one focusing attention on potential guilt of Larry Fisher, a known offender — was accepted by Campbell. And in a highly unusual development, the government referred the Milgaard application straight to the Supreme Court of Canada, the highest court in the country.
The fresh evidence assembled on Milgaard’s behalf included a recantation by witness Ron Wilson. Wilson said that he had been coming down from a drug high at the time of his second police interview, and speculated that police would release him to the street where he could obtain more drugs if he were to give them what they wanted.
Another key piece of fresh evidence involved a 1970 confession by a local sex offender, Larry Fisher. Fisher had admitted to committing six sexual assaults, including four in the same area of Saskatoon where Gail Miller was killed, raising a very real possibility that she was another of his victims.
The Supreme Court heard the fresh evidence in 1992. It issued a recommendation to the federal Justice minister that Milgaard’s conviction be quashed and a new trial held. However, its decision disappointed Milgaard and his supporters, in that the court concluded his trial had been fair and not marred by police wrongdoing.
The federal government adhered to the court’s recommendation. However, two days later, the attorney general of Saskatchewan decided to enter a stay of proceedings (a halt in the legal process) instead of retrying the case. That meant Milgaard would be freed immediately. Still, he was unsatisfied because the outcome would also make it difficult for him to obtain financial compensation. The province also angered Milgaard’s supporters by refusing to call an inquiry, to probe what had gone so wrong in his case.
In 1993, Milgaard filed a lawsuit against Saskatchewan justice officials and police alleging rampant wrongdoing and a cover-up. The legal proceeding moved at a glacial pace, prompting Milgaard to contact James Lockyer, a lawyer with the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC), in 1996. It was known that semen samples had been found on Miller’s clothing and retained by the Crown. AIDWYC pressed for them to be tested for DNA in hopes of definitively clearing Milgaard’s name.
It took years of legal wrangling for Lockyer to obtain the samples and arrange for them to be tested at a lab in the United Kingdom. The results ultimately excluded Milgaard as being the man who had murdered Miller. Instead, the DNA results pointed directly toward Larry Fisher as being the perpetrator.
Through its own investigation, AIDWYC learned that in 1970, Fisher had been well known to police. Furthermore, at the time of the Miller murder, he was renting a basement apartment in the same home as Albert Cadrain lived.
Lockyer and AIDWYC also learned of Fisher’s 1970 confession to several rapes in the Saskatoon area, for which he had served a 10-year prison sentence. Released in 1980, Fisher had been arrested within weeks for a new sex attack which led to him being sentenced to another 10-year term.
With new rules governing disclosure of evidence having come into effect across the country, Milgaard’s defence team also obtained documents showing that in August 1980, Fisher’s ex-wife Linda had contacted Saskatoon police to say that she suspected he had murdered Gail Miller. On the day of the Miller murder, Linda Fisher said, a paring knife had gone missing from their kitchen. She told police that her ex-husband also appeared shocked and flustered when she confronted him that day to accuse him of committing the attack.
At the time that Linda Fisher contacted police, Milgaard was locked away in prison for the crime; police had never followed up on the tip.
Fisher was arrested on 25 July 1997. With DNA evidence linking him to the victim, he was convicted in 1999 of murdering Gail Miller.
Compensation and Inquiry
Meanwhile, a public and media furor had continued to swirl around the Milgaard case. Under intense pressure, the Saskatchewan government appointed retired Québec Superior Court Justice Alan Gold to negotiate a compensation package for Milgaard. His recommendation of a $10-million settlement was accepted by the government.
In 2004, the province also succumbed to demands for an inquiry, appointing Justice Edward P. MacCallum of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench to preside over it.
MacCallum released a series of recommendations and findings in 2008, many of them relating to the retention and disclosure of evidence. In a key conclusion, he found that a Saskatoon police polygrapher who had re-interviewed John and Wilson for a lie-detector test, had exerted unacceptable pressure on them, causing them to change their stories and effectively seal Milgaard’s fate with false testimony.
During his 23 years behind bars, Milgaard suffered enormous psychological stress and was physically and sexually assaulted on a number of occasions by fellow inmates. Several times, he had attempted suicide. In the years since his exoneration, he has spoken freely about his suffering and his need to embrace therapy in order to get over his ordeal.
Milgaard is married, has two children and lives in Calgary.