A life ‘defined by something he didn’t do’: David Milgaard, wrongfully convicted of murder, dies at 69

David Milgaard, a man who spent 23 years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit, died in a Calgary hospital this weekend, sources close to the family have confirmed.

He died after a brief hospital stay from complications related to pneumonia. 

Milgaard, 69, who had been living in Cochrane, leaves behind two children in their teens.

Those close to Milgaard describe him as a gracious man who did not hold onto anger or animosity.

Milgaard worked in recent years, to prevent similar miscarriages of justice from happening to others. 

‘Defined by something he didn’t do’

“He wanted to live life to the fullest with the time that was available to him and not carry a grudge,” said Dr. Patrick Baillie, a psychologist who testified on Milgaard’s behalf at the Saskatchewan inquiry into his wrongful conviction in 2006.

“His life was always defined by something he didn’t do and he wanted the opportunity to define his life on the basis of the things that were important to him.”

In 1969, the Winnipeg man was 16 years old and passing through Saskatchewan with friends when Saskatoon nurse Gail Miller’s body was found in a snowbank.

A year after Miller was killed, Milgaard was convicted of her rape and murder, and incarcerated from the ages of 16 to 39. 

Over the years, lawyers have accused police of having “the worst kind of tunnel vision” during the investigation of the case. 

His mother Joyce, who died in 2020, never doubted her son’s innocence and together, they spent more than 20 years fighting to prove his innocence. 

Without Joyce, Milgaard believed he would have been left to rot in prison and always credited her for helping secure his freedom.

He was released from prison in 1992, but it took several more years before he was exonerated. 

WATCH | David Milgaard case: Who killed Gail Miller?

David Milgaard case: Who killed Gail Miller?

32 years ago

Duration 16:41

CBC’s The Fifth Estate investigates the murder – and the evidence – that put David Milgaard behind bars.

In 1997, the emergence of new DNA evidence linked notorious rapist Larry Fisher to the murder. 

Fisher was convicted of the crime eight years later and sentenced to life in prison. He died in 2015 at the age of 65. 

Milgaard received a multi-million dollar compensation package from the federal government in 1999.

A ‘gentle person’

Greg Rodin was one of the lawyers who secured that compensation, but their relationship grew over the years and the two became close friends.

Rodin described Milgaard as a “loving, caring and gentle person.” 

David Milgaard died in Calgary over the weekend. He was 69. (Josh Lynn/CBC)

“All those who knew and loved David are in a state of shock and great sadness,” said Rodin in an email to CBC News. “I will miss my friend greatly.”

Milgaard’s life work, said Rodin, was his continued advocacy for prison reform.

“He showed us that we are all vulnerable to being wrongfully convicted,” said Rodin.

Desire for ‘a quiet existence’

Milgaard, said Rodin, believed the current penal system would be greatly improved if it was designed to resemble an Indigenous justice model.

Most recently Milgaard was working closely with Federal Justice Minister David Lametti to establish a commission which would investigate cases where wrongful conviction was claimed.

Milgaard did this even though his advocacy kept his wrongful conviction front and centre to his public identity.

When Baillie testified at the wrongful conviction inquiry, he told Justice Edward MacCallum that Milgaard would always be forced to carry the weight of the wrongful conviction. 

“David wants to be a father to his children, David wants to be married to his wife, David wants to have just a quiet existence,” Baillie told the inquiry.

“But even if David became prime minister, the day that David dies, the first line of his obituary is going to be ‘David Milgaard, who spent 23 years in prison for a wrongful conviction and later went on to become Prime minister…'”

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