WN: No doubt I will be adding more commentary. But below are Reflections about David I wrote today after hearing the tragic news. You may also click on other posts, including a joint presentation he and I did (see below) two years ago.1
Reflections on David Milgaard
May 15, 2022
It was a shock, followed by great sadness, to have heard the news today of David’s passing.
In 1989, newly hired to head the Restorative Justice work of Mennonite Central Committee Canada, I was perusing correspondence of my predecessor, Restorative Justice pioneer, Dave Worth, and discovered David Milgaard in those letter exchanges. At the time he was in Stony Mountain Prison, near Winnipeg. We began our own correspondence that soon developed into a warm friendship. These past several years, we remained in touch regularly. David, who was pure heart, was a loyal friend.
Through the tireless effort of his mother, Joyce, who died in March 2020, liberal MP Lloyd Axworthy raised his case in Parliament in 1991, claiming it was a great travesty of justice. On April 16, 1992, David was released from prison on a stay of proceedings—instead of receiving a new trial. He had served 23 years for a rape and murder he had not committed.
Not until July 18, 1997, was David exonerated through DNA evidence. The Saskatchewan government finally apologized for its wrongful police investigation, prosecution, conviction, and imprisonment. The real rapist and killer—since deceased Larry Fisher—had been known to police at the time due to other sexual assault convictions, had been living in the same neighbourhood as his victim, and had been questioned about the crime and released by police. . . Vancouver’s Innocence Canada, and many others, estimate that as many as one in ten convicted of a serious and violent crime knew nothing about it at all, until charges were laid.
It took two additional years for David to receive compensation for pain, suffering, lost wages, and legal fees.
He was only 17 years old when first incarcerated. What could have been the best years of his life were snatched from him. Despite that, I never experienced David expressing self-pity or bitterness. He had been raped in prison, shot in the back by police after an escape, had suffered many prisoner indignities, and had attempted suicide.
After his release, David lived for a few years in Vancouver. Our family saw a lot of him then. He often would hop on a bus, seemingly heading wherever it was going, then he’d call us on his way back to come pick him up—once, with a stray dog at about 2:00 a.m.! When eventually compensated, his wanderlust continued by jet.
David keenly embraced Restorative Justice: a peacemaking not warmaking response to crime. He excoriated prison not only because of his harrowing 23 years inside, but because he knew all reputable evidence-based studies worldwide find prison almost invariably achieves far less than, if not the inverse of, its stated lofty aims. David knew/knew of Order of Canada recipient Ruth Morris who co-edited with Canadian criminologist Gordon West The Case for Penal Abolition, that presents a compelling rationale. In August 2020, David and I recorded on Zoom a presentation about aspects of that (RJWorld eConference, August 22 – 31, 2020: David Milgaard & Wayne Northey).
“The whole trouble,” Leo Tolstoy once wrote about the criminal justice system, “is that people think there are circumstances when one may deal with human beings without love, but no such circumstances ever exist. Human beings cannot be handled without love. It cannot be otherwise, because mutual love is the fundamental law of human life.”2 Tragically, Canada’s criminal justice system in David’s case exemplified that Tolstoyian failure to love.
David was appointed and remained deeply committed to the Independent Review Board Working Group, an entity whose creation was ordered by Justin Trudeau in December 2019.
In 2016, he invited me to attend Simon Fraser University’s Ting Forum on Justice Policy: a Symposium on Wrongful Convictions and Criminal Investigative Failures (Session 6: Voices of the Wrongfully Convicted / The Innocence Project – School of Criminology – Simon Fraser University (sfu.ca)). Along with others, David presented powerfully about “the crime of punishment” (title of famous psychiatrist Karl Menninger’s book). Post-incarceration, he ever echoed Canadian philosopher John McMurtry’s words:
As with past monstrous systems of cruel and systematic oppression, we see how morally blind the conventionalised [retributivist] mind-set can become.
David always wished to make this sink in: a tunnel vision justice system that brutally scapegoats its “guilty” victims gets it wrong by all estimates one in ten times! And who, he wondered, holds all its actors accountable?
Thank you and farewell David, my dear friend, for a life of deep caring, passionately lived. As often approvingly said in prison, you “walked the talk.”
- Below are the lyrics of The Tragically Hip telling David’s story in song, 1992. The link is here: Wheat Kings, by The Tragically Hip. We read about it:
In the book Top 100 Canadian Singles, Gord Downie explained the inspiration for this song. “[It’s] about David Milgaard and his faith in himself,” he said. “And about his mother, Joyce, and her absolute faith in her son’s innocence. And about our big country and its faith in man’s fallibility. And about Gail Miller, all those mornings ago, just lying there, all her faith bleeding out into that Saskatoon snowbank.”
The title is a reference to the farmers in Saskatchewan, where the crime took place. They were known as “wheat kings” after developing a popular strain of wheat that fueled the area economy.
The Tragically Hip are distinctly Canadian, and this song opens with the sounds of loons, a bird that appears on the one-dollar coin in the country. According to guitarist Rob Baker, the man who recorded the sounds threatened legal action, so the band agreed to make a donation to the conservation group Ducks Unlimited in his name.
Here are the lyrics:
Sundown in the Paris of the prairies wheat kings have all their treasures buried
And all you hear are the rusty breezes pushing
Around the weather vane Jesus
In his Zippo lighter, he sees the killer’s face maybe
It’s someone standing in a killer’s place twenty years for nothing, well that’s
Nothing new, besides, no one’s interested in something you didn’t do
Wheat kings and pretty things, let’s just see what the morning brings
There’s a dreamy dream where the high school is dead and stark it’s a museum
And we’re all locked up in it after dark where the walls
Are lined all yellow, grey and sinister hung
With pictures of our parents’ prime ministers wheat kings and pretty things
Wait and see what tomorrow brings
Late breaking story on the CBC, a nation whispers,
“We always knew that he’d go free” they add, “you can’t be fond of living in
The past, ’cause if you are then there’s no way that you’re gonna last”
Wheat kings and pretty things
Let’s just see what tomorrow brings
Wheat kings and pretty things
Oh, that’s what tomorrow brings
–Writer/s: Gordon Downie, Gordon Sinclair, Johnny Fay, Paul Langlois, Robert Baker
Publisher: Peermusic Publishing
Lyrics licensed and provided by LyricFind
- Quoted in Timothy Gorringe, God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence, and the Rhetoric of Salvation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 266.