injusticebusters logo

David Milgaard

Expert backs probe into Milgaard conviction

A criminologist who studied the 1969 prosecution and wrongful conviction of David Milgaard said he welcomes a public inquiry into the way the Gail Miller murder case was handled.

Gail Miller murder victim

Nursing assistant Gail Miller is found dead in an alley, stabbed fourteen times with a paring knife

"I think it's a very important step. There are many questions, particularly questions relating to the arrest of Larry Fisher in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1970 and the way in which that arrest was handled. I think those issues have to be looked at in some detail," said Neil Body, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

"I think it could very useful to find out how and why this mistake was made so that it won't happen again," Body said.

Milgaard was convicted in January 1970 for the rape and murder of 20-year-old nursing assistant Gail Miller, whose body had been found one year earlier, in an alley behind Avenue N South. He served almost 23 years in the penitentiary.

In 1999, convicted serial rapist Larry Fisher was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Larry Fisher

Serial rapist and RCMP snitch Larry Fisher sentenced to life

Back in 1992, after years of trying to attract attention to her son's case, Joyce Milgaard and her Toronto lawyers, Hersh Wolch and David Asper, convinced the Supreme Court to hear David Milgaard's appeal.

The lawyers included in their submissions to the High Court, a February 1992 academic paper written by Body and Kim Rossmo, a criminology PhD student. The paper called Finding Justice: problems and prospects with the Milgaard conviction, examined the possible guilt or innocence of David Milgaard and of Larry Fisher.

Milgaard was released and the Saskatchewan Justice Department stayed the charge. That year, Milgaard, his family and supporters began demanding a full public inquiry.

In 1994, Alberta Justice carried out a seven-month investigation into 68 allegations of obstruction of justice by Justice Department officials, who allegedly had conspired to suppress evidence. The investigation cleared justice officials.

In 1997 Milgaard was cleared when DNA taken from semen on Miller's clothes did not match his. He was later paid $10 million by the Saskatchewan and federal governments, the largest criminal compensation ever in Canada.

The DNA matched that of convicted serial rapist Fisher.

Fisher was convicted of Miller's murder in 1999. His appeal of that conviction was dismissed last week by the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal. That decision was followed by Saskatchewan Justice Minister Eric Cline's announcement of the inquiry.

Body hopes the Milgaard inquiry will answer questions about why Fisher, who was charged with two rapes in Winnipeg in 1970, agreed to plead guilty to four rapes in Saskatoon.

"It's very unusual that somebody would confess out of the blue to rapes in another jurisdiction," Body said.

"Also why did Larry Fisher plead guilty in Regina to the rapes instead of Saskatoon, the city in which the rapes occurred?" he said.

Body also wants to know why a former Saskatoon police detective misled him and Rossmo about the fact he had been sent to Winnipeg to interview Fisher before Fisher made the unusual admission and was sentenced in Regina rather than in Saskatoon.

"When Fisher was arrested. . . it seems quite likely that there was a perception that the Milgaard conviction was an inappropriate conviction because of the proximity of time and place and the similarity of the rapes to which Fisher pled guilty to the Gail Miller murder," Body said.

Cline calls inquiry into Milgaard conviction

Eric Cline

REGINA - Saskatchewan's justice minister Eric Cline has called an inquiry into the wrongful conviction of David Milgaard. He was convicted of the 1969 rape and murder of Saskatoon nursing assistant Gail Miller.
Milgaard served 23 years in prison before the Supreme Court of Canada reviewed his case and ordered a new trial. The province stayed those charges and decided not to retry Milgaard.

Larry Fisher was later tried and convicted of that murder.

SEPT. 29, 2003: Fisher taking appeal to Supreme Court of Canada
On Monday the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal denied Fisher's request for a new trial. Fisher's lawyer plans to ask the Supreme Court of Canada to hear the appeal.

Milgaard finally gets inquiry

The Saskatchewan government will begin immediately with a full public inquiry into the wrongful conviction of David Milgaard, who spent 23 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit -- the 1969 rape and murder of 20-year-old nursing assistant Gail Miller.

Justice Minister Eric Cline announced Tuesday the government has already put the wheels in motion to choose a judge or retired judge to act as commissioner of the inquiry, which could begin hearing testimony five or six months after the appointment.

"A judicial inquiry should proceed as expeditiously as possible, that is, as soon as logistically possible," Cline said.

On Monday the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal unanimously dismissed an appeal by Larry Fisher, the man who was convicted in November 1999 of the same crime. He was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 10 years.

While the decision opened the way for the long-awaited inquiry, that process will be suspended if Fisher is granted leave to appeal to the Supreme Court, Cline said.

The Saskatchewan government is getting started on the inquiry because the Appeal Court decision was unanimous, making it unlikely the Supreme Court will hear the case, he said.

Fisher has 60 days in which to file an appeal. If he does, the Crown has 30 days to file a response for the High Court's consideration.

The inquiry will look into the police investigation into the January 1969 murder and the prosecution and conviction of David Milgaard, then a 16-year-old travelling through the city with friends.

The inquiry will also examine actions of the Saskatoon police after information about Larry Fisher's other rapes came to light.

While the terms of reference have not been finalized, "it would be broader in scope rather than narrower," to answer outstanding questions about the case, Cline said.

Naming the commissioner and establishing the terms of reference should be complete within weeks, Cline said.

Fisher's 1999 trial heard that he had raped two other women within a 12-block area and within a year and a half of the Miller murder. Fisher also pleaded guilty to a rape in Winnipeg, which bore striking similarities in method to the Saskatoon rapes and the Miller rape and murder.

That "similar fact" information was a large part of the case against Fisher but was not considered by a court until 1992 when the Supreme Court recommended a new trial for Milgaard.

The charges were stayed and in 1997, DNA evidence cleared Milgaard. He was later awarded $10 million, the largest criminal compensation ever paid in Canada.

The DNA, which matched Fisher's, was also used in the Crown's case against Fisher.

Word of the inquiry was received with joy by the Milgaard family.

"I'm just delighted. We're really happy," said David Milgaard's mother, Joyce Milgaard.

"Our reaction is good, basically. I'm glad for the Millers that they're not going to have to wait and wait and wait. This should be finalized as soon as possible," she said.

Milgaard repeated her wish that if the inquiry reveals any wrongdoing on the part of police or justice officials, that they be brought to justice.

"There should be some accountability," Milgaard said.

Cline said the provincial government cannot override the charter of rights, which protects people who must testify at an inquiry from being charged based on their testimony there.

Milgaard said she will seek standing at the inquiry.

"I'm very, very happy to hear about it and I'll be out there to see that they do it right," she said.

The Saskatoon police want the Milgaard family to get answers for their questions, said spokesperson Insp. Lorne Constantinoff.

"I'm sure there are a lot of unanswered questions for the Milgaard family. That is the most important thing, that they have complete closure in this," he said.

"The police department always errs on the side of justice and what is right. If there have been discrepancies or false accusations or if the justice system has been at fault in any way, then the police department is interested in making it right," he said.

Most of the officers who were involved in the Milgaard investigation have retired and there have since been many changes in the way the police service operates, he said.

Changes include the use of DNA evidence, computer programs to help manage investigations, thereby preventing police from missing any angles of a case, improved officer training in interrogation and investigation, greater accountability of investigators to their supervisors and different rules of evidence to be presented in court, Constantinoff said.

"All of these things have a much greater impact on the way we do investigations," Constantinoff said.

Elwin Hermanson, leader of the Saskatchewan Party, approves of the inquiry.

"We've been concerned for quite some time that there seem to be problems with Saskatchewan's justice system. There's been a break down, either procedural or handling of a number of cases," he said.

The Sask. Party would not object to the inquiry if it should form government after the next provincial election, Hermanson said.

It might even call another inquiry into the justice system because there have been so many problematic cases in recent years, he said.

"There were procedural problems with the Latimer case, the Martensville affair, this Klassen family, I guess, is the most recent issue to hit the news. . . . As part of our overall review of government, we'd certainly think the justice system should be part of that," Hermanson said.