JUSTICE

A prisoner’s new hope

David Milgaard is seeking another chance

JOHN HOWSE September 23 1991
JUSTICE

A prisoner’s new hope

David Milgaard is seeking another chance

JOHN HOWSE September 23 1991

A prisoner’s new hope

JUSTICE

David Milgaard is seeking another chance

For David Milgaard, the resumption of Parliament this week offers new hope of freedom after 22 years in prison. Sentenced to life imprisonment for the fatal stabbing of a 20-year-old Saskatoon woman, Milgaard has always insisted that he is innocent of the crime. Last year, his lawyers asked Ottawa to order a new trial. But in February, Justice Minister Kim Campbell rejected the request, saying that she saw no reason for a retrial. Then, last month, Milgaard’s lawyers, armed with new evidence and public calls for a new hearing, again asked Campbell for a retrial. Even Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has promised to look into the case. Spokesmen for both opposition parties said last week that they would use the return of Commons sittings to press Campbell to reverse her position and order a new trial. The handling of the Milgaard case, said NDP member Rodney Laporte, “casts a shadow on the entire political system.”

The case took a surprising -turn on Sept. 6, when Milgaard’s mother, Joyce, had a five-minute conversation with Mulroney outside a Winnipeg hotel where the Prime Minister attended a luncheon. Mulroney told her that “you’ve been very courageous... and we will do what we can.” Joyce Milgaard told Maclean ’s that by speaking to her, Mulroney had helped to “establish the credibility of the the case, because he is the Prime Minister, and he says that he will look into it.” In Ottawa, some political observers speculated that Mulroney’s words might have reflected knowledge that Campbell planned to order a new trial. “But if the Prime Minister was just speaking off the cuff,” said Adrian Dix, a legislative assistant to NDP justice critic Ian Waddell, “that would certainly put added pressures on Campbell. If she says yes to a new trial now, it might look like she backed down.”

Members of the Winnipeg-based Milgaard Support Group, which is led by Milgaard’s mother, now contend that nursing assistant Gail Miller may have been slain by Larry Fisher, who is currently serving a total of 23 years in British Columbia for violent sexual attacks on young women in Winnipeg and Saskatoon during the same period in which Miller was killed. Milgaard’s supporters also claim that the Saskatoon police coerced witnesses to provide evidence against Milgaard. They add that since then, the police have tried to cover up their actions.

Earlier this month, Saskatoon’s acting police chief, Murray Montague, acknowledged that some documents dealing with Fisher were missing. But he added: “We have no reason to suspect that any files have been destroyed or otherwise tampered with.” Still, while the police subsequently located some of the files, last week the Saskatoon Police Board asked the Saskatchewan Police Commission to investigate the handling of the documents.

Milgaard’s supporters say that Milgaard, who is one of Canada’s longest-serving prisoners, has been in a severely depressed state since Campbell rejected his appeal. According to his lawyer, David Asper, the 39-year-old Milgaard is being given the drug lithium to combat his depression and spends most of his time in isolation to avoid mixing with other prisoners. “His health is degenerating,” says Barbara Degen, a Winnipeg social worker who is a member of the Milgaard Support Group. “It is urgent that something be done.”

The new case in support of Milgaard, who is serving his sentence in Stony Mountain Penitentiary, 25 km north of Winnipeg, has largely been built by Centurion Ministries Inc., a nonprofit American organization that specializes in attempting to free convicted people who it says are innocent. In 1990, the Princeton, NJ.-based group, which has convinced the courts of the innocence of eight American prisoners who were either serving life sentences or facing execution, took on the case at Joyce Milgaard’s request, and is not charging her for its services. A report drawn up by Centurion outlines a series of nine rapes, including that of Gail Miller, that it attributes to Fisher.

For his part, Fisher, 43, who was living in Saskatoon at the time of the murder, has maintained his innocence in the case. According to the Centurion report, which was sent to Campbell, Fisher’s ex-wife, Linda, who now lives in Cando, Sask., says that she told Saskatoon police in 1980 that she believed her former husband killed Miller.

The report also quotes Linda Fisher as saying that her ex-husband was at home even though he told police that he was at work on the morning of Jan. 31, 1969, when Miller was stabbed about two blocks from the Fisher apartment.

The accumulated weight of new evidence and new arguments in support of Milgaard’s claims of innocence has convinced some legal observers that a new trial is warranted. Says Brian Greenspan, president of the Torontobased Criminal Lawyers Association of Canada: “There are certainly a lot of questions to be answered.” Clearly, for David Milgaard, those answers cannot come soon enough.

JOHN HOWSE in Winnipeg