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Joyce Milgaard

It's a simple matter of faith

Joyce Milgaard Even back when she lived in the Langenburg, Saskatchewan, of the 1960s, Joyce Milgaard was a woman of faith.

Many times over the 23 years that she fought to get her son David out of jail, she drew strength from the Bible, particularly the story of David and Goliath.

She sees herself as God's instrument, and had she not felt she was serving some higher purpose, Milgaard believes she never could have summoned the strength to see her through.

Even today, 12 years after David was released on the strength of DNA evidence that exonerated him of Gail Miller's murder, Joyce has maintained a quiet sense of mission with regard to justice reform.

A Christian Scientist since before David was arrested in 1969, Joyce credits her now legendary persistence to her religious faith. "If I hadn't had it, I probably would have fallen by the wayside," she said in an interview outside the Milgaard Inquiry room in Saskatoon this week.

"It gave me the strength to turn it over to The Big Guy each day and say, 'OK Father, what do you want me to do tomorrow?'

"I think there was a purpose for this. I think Joyce Milgaard was meant to fight the justice system to help others. My faith has been a strong support throughout the years."

Faith certainly, and no small measure of patience. Even now, there is a long road ahead in the search for answers to how the justice system got this case so horribly wrong. Justice Edward MacCallum is having the case dissected in minute detail here in a process that will occupy most of 2005 simply to hear the testimony, never mind produce a report.

No doubt there will be numerous instances where the evidence will show the outcome could have gone the other way had events unfolded differently.

This week, for example, the inquiry heard that if a semen sample collected from Miller's vagina had been retained, it may well have exonerated Milgaard 10 years sooner.

In spite of things like that, Joyce is trying to take the long view on these proceedings. There are a range of critical issues to be examined, from how David was arrested to the conduct of the provincial prosecutions branch. But one particular chapter of the saga sticks out for her.

Larry Fisher

Larry Fisher killed Gail Miller

"If there was one most important point of all, I guess I'd like to know why when Larry Fisher (right) was caught, he went through the system in Regina. Nobody knew about it. It never made the papers. How did they manage that and why? I mean that doesn't make sense. You've got a serial rapist and you don't tell anybody about it? You don't tell the victims about it, you don't put it in the paper so people can be relieved? There was a coverup in no uncertain terms, as far as I'm concerned, and that's what needs to come out. What happened and why and who did it. Who was responsible."

Her lawyer Hersh Wolch has his own list of critical questions.

For example, "how did Nicol John give a statement witnessing a crime that didn't happen?" Wolch wonders.

"I'd like to hear from Larry Fisher as to whether he committed the crime in a car or on the street. I'd like to hear from a lot of people as to how it was ignored. It couldn't have happened the way it was described. It just couldn't have. And why it took so long to undo. Why (former Justice Minister) Kim Campbell turned us down; just thousands of questions."

Any number of people who opposed Joyce Milgaard's campaign have learned something about her resolve. The steel backbone she has displayed throughout has made her a symbol of hope for others fighting wrongful convictions.

It also led to her involvement in the Association In Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, (AIDWYC) led by lawyer James Lockyer.

Right after David was released, Lockyer called Joyce to ask her if she would help with the case of Guy Paul Morin, who was tried twice for the murder of Christine Jessop and improperly jailed for 18 months.

"I said absolutely not. After all I've gone through, I wasn't interested in doing anything. The next phone call I got was Guy Paul Morin's mother. How could I say no to her?"

Thus began the second phase of Joyce's career as a justice crusader. A nucleus of lawyers was gathered to form AIDWYC, and Joyce agreed to sit on the board of directors.

"For me it was ideal because then when people phoned me I had a place I could send them to. I became one of the directors and I guess if you ask for the main reason, at one point I promised The Big Guy that if he got David out of prison then I would help anyone else who was wrongfully convicted."

While every case is different, Joyce says that to the layperson, they do have something in common.

"There's a smell to a wrongful conviction. You can start reading documents on it and the next thing you know, you think 'A-ha, this is one.' It's very quick to find, and again it's the tunnel vision that was very evident in this case, and evident in the Thomas Sophonow case and with all of the other wrongful convictions. There's just a familiar strain there," she says.

Whatever, the eventual findings of this inquiry, Joyce and her legal team are looking for a significant structural change in the way such cases are handled in the future.

What they want is an independent board established that would examine cases of wrongful conviction, thereby taking it out of the hands of governments and prosecutors with vested interests.

Britain established such a board in 1996, called the Criminal Cases Review Commission. It has all the powers of a court, including subpoena, search warrant and investigation. In the eight years of its existence, the commission has overturned more than 50 homicide convictions.

In spite of all the wrongful convictions that have come to light in recent years, Joyce believes that the same thing that happened to David could happen to someone else's son today.

And so she still has unfinished business. Saskatoon will be her home for most of this year, as the story of how the justice system failed her family unspools.

One wonders though, how life might have unfolded for Joyce Milgaard had none of this ever happened.

Without a moment's hesitation she laughs at the question and says "I'd probably still be in Langenburg, Saskatchewan, baking bread and making pickles."