JUSTICE

A bizarre trial

High court judges examine a murder verdict

NANCY WOOD February 3 1992
JUSTICE

A bizarre trial

High court judges examine a murder verdict

NANCY WOOD February 3 1992

A bizarre trial

JUSTICE

High court judges examine a murder verdict

Wearing jeans and a black T-shirt, Ronald Dale Wilson sat patiently before the Supreme Court of Canada. Facing him were five of the country’s nine Supreme Court justices, their black robes set off by stiff white collars. They listened in Ottawa last week as the 40-year-old wheel-alignment mechanic admitted that he lied in 1970, when his testimony helped to convict David Edgar Milgaard of the murder of Gail Miller, a Saskatoon nursing assistant. But as Wilson’s new version of events became more and more confused and contradictory, the justices’ frustration seemed to grow. When Milgaard’s lawyer Hersh Wolch declared that Wilson not only lied at Milgaard’s trial, but was still lying, Wilson admitted that he probably was. Chief Justice Antonio Lamer said with obvious anger: “He has lied through his teeth all along.”

Later, Lamer cited Wilson for contempt of court.

The search for the truth surrounding events that occurred on Jan. 31, 1969, has not been an easy one for Lamer and his four colleagues.

Milgaard has always insisted that he is innocent. And in November, Justice Minister Kim Campbell asked the court to determine whether there had been a miscarriage of justice in the Milgaard case. As a result, the Su-

preme Court, which is usually a forum for learned legal debate, was transformed into a criminal courtroom. In the middle of the sombre chamber of red carpeting and wood-panelled walls, workmen had erected a temporary witness stand. Maps of the crime scene stood on easels, while evidence books displayed photographs of the murder victim’s body. Milgaard’s 62-year-old mother, Joyce, who for years has campaigned to establish her son’s innocence, sat in the courtroom with a briefcase full of documents.

During the hearing, Milgaard and the two people who were his teenage companions at the time described what they did on the day of the murder 23 years ago. Milgaard, Wilson and

a female friend, Nichol John, testified that they left Regina at about 1 a.m. on Jan. 31, intending to drive to Vancouver or Edmonton. They described themselves as “hippies” and seemed unconcerned about their vague itinerary and the dismal operating condition of Wilson’s 1958 Pontiac.

They testified that they arrived in Saskatoon before dawn. It was bitterly cold (-40° C) as they tried to find the home of one of Milgaard’s friends, Albert Cadrain. Eventually, they located the home of Cadrain’s parents and briefly visited the family. A few hours later, they left for Edmonton. By that time, 20-year-old Gail Miller was dead. She had been sexually assaulted and stabbed with a small knife. Her battered body was found partially unclothed, lying facedown in an alley near the Cadrains’ home. Four months later, police arrested Milgaard in Prince George, B.C. On Jan. 31,1970, largely on the basis of his friends’ testimony, a jury convicted him of non-capital murder. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Much of the first week of hearings before the Supreme Court was devoted to the conflicting accounts given over the years by Wilson and John (who now uses her married name of Demyen). According to the Saskatoon police records, within days of the murder both Wilson and John said that Milgaard could not have killed the young woman. But later, their stories changed. At the trial, Wilson testified that after the murder, he saw blood on Milgaard’s trousers. But in his testimony before the Supreme Court, Wilson said that he lied during Milgaard’s trial as a result of police pressure.

Lamer became visibly irritated as Wilson continued to give contradictory testimony. On his first day before the court, Wilson said that on the day of the murder, the car in which he, Milgaard and John were travelling stalled near the alley where Miller’s body was later found. Wilson said that Milgaard left the car and was gone for about 10 minutes. But when Wolch cross-examined Wilson, he said that he and Milgaard had not been apart on the day of the killing. Added Wolch: “You lied yesterday. All your problems are that when you start telling lies, you get all tangled up.” Wilson replied softly: “I believe you are right.” Said Lamer: “You have lied to us yesterday, you have lied in recanting, you have lied in the recant.” Earlier, Lamer reversed an earlier decision to have Wilson submit to a liedetector test.

For her part, John, who told police in 1969 that she saw Milgaard stab a woman, told the court that she still experiences disturbing “flashbacks” involving violence in an alley. But she said that she could not say for ^ certain that the visions are I based on reality or that MilI gaard is a part of them.

S' In the end, conclusive eviá dence of Milgaard’s guilt or innocence could come from a u forensic technique known as of innocence genetic fingerprinting. Lamer ordered samples of Milgaard’s blood and saliva to be sent to a police laboratory in England, along with underpants worn by the dead woman and vials containing traces of semen found near her body. British scientists will use advanced technology to determine if Milgaard’s DNA—a genetic material with distinctive patterns for each individual— matches that found at the scene of the crime. (Last November, a jury in Burton, N.B., convicted Allan Legere on four counts of murder after DNA evidence linked him to the murder victims.) In the end, a scientific technique so advanced it seems futuristic may help unlock this mystery of the past.

NANCY WOOD in Ottawa