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BONOKOSKI: The life and death of wrongly convicted David Milgaard

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On June 8, David Milgaard and his lawyer, David Asper, were slated to receive honorary Doctor of Law degrees from the University of Manitoba.

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It would mark the 50th anniversary of Milgaard’s wrongful conviction for the 1970 murder of Saskatoon nursing student Gail Miller.

Serial rapist Larry Fisher was eventually convicted of the Miller murder through DNA evidence, but only after Milgaard had spent more than two decades in prison.

“It’s kind of an anniversary of a nightmare for me, so I don’t celebrate it, that’s for sure,” Milgaard told the Winnipeg Free Press.

He still may get that degree, but it will be posthumously.

Migaard died last Sunday in a Calgary hospital after a brief illness.

He was 69.

As someone who has covered crime and punishment for decades, the case of David Milgaard stands alone as one of supreme stubbornness in professing innocence, even though it cost him 23 years in prison when a bogus and remorseful guilty plea would have already had him out.

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For years, his only advocate was his mother, Joyce, until his case was picked up by Innocence Canada, a group of committed lawyers who work to free the wrongly convicted.

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Milgaard was less than enthused about the honorary degree.

“I don’t usually accept any awards,” Milgaard said from his Calgary home before taking ill. “I’ve always felt I don’t do that much, in relation to helping others.”

When he was notified about the degree, however, Asper was emotional.

“I walked with David out the doors of Stony Mountain prison in 1992, and I’m going to walk into an academic convocation with him in 2022,” he told the Free Press. “Those are going to be two pretty special walks.”

Milgaard’s loss is “devastating for the family,” Toronto’s Innocence Canada lawyer James Lockyer told The Press.

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Milgaard was a skinny 16-year-old when he was charged and wrongfully convicted in the rape and murder of Miller, who was stabbed and left to die in the Saskatoon snow in the early morning of Jan. 31, 1969.

He grew from a teenager into middle-age in one of Canada’s roughest prisons, where he was raped, had his teeth broken and often demanded to be put in solitary confinement just to escape the torment.

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As crime writer Peter Edwards described one prison visit with Milgaard, “his arms became scarred with about a dozen slashes. They were about an inch long, ugly and deep. Some were from suicide attempts and others were just the slashing that’s common in prison when choosing prisoners pain over the dull feeling of being one of the living dead.

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“On top of the slashing scars on his arms were a couple of large rose tattoos, also from prison.”

In his later years, Milgaard helped raise awareness about wrongful convictions and demanded action on the way Canadian courts review convictions.

“I think it’s important for everybody, not just lawyers, but for the public itself to be aware that wrongful convictions are taking place and that these people are sitting right now, behind bars, and they’re trying to get out,” he said in 2015.

“The policies that are keeping them there need to be changed. The wrongful conviction review process is failing all of us miserably.”

Prior to his death, Milgaard and Asper were waiting for Justice Minister David Lametti to do what was in the first line of his mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — and that was to establish a long-demanded independent review agency of those who maintain them ‘ve been wrongfully convicted.

But Lametti has been dragging his ass.

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