'He knew he was innocent': David Milgaard's lawyer remembers his fight fight for freedom

Friends and colleagues are remembering David Milgaard, a justice advocate who died over the weekend.

The 69-year-old, who was wrongfully convicted of murder, spent 23 years in prison before his exoneration.

In fighting for his own freedom, Milgaard became an advocate for the wrongfully convicted.

“He knew he was innocent,” said David Asper, Milgaard’s friend and his former defence lawyer. “He simply refused to let the system own him.”

Milgaard was only 16 when he was charged and then wrongfully convicted in 1970 for the rape and murder of Saskatoon nursing aid Gail Miller. Following Milgaard’s release, a man named Larry Fisher was arrested, charged and convicted in the murder.

“He was defiant,” Asper recalled. “He had a parole hearing…and I went to the hearing with him.”

“He kept telling me in our private meetings…‘parole is for guilty people, I’m innocent. Watch.’”

Asper said he didn’t quite know what to expect.

“He looked at the panel…and he basically said, ‘eff you to you, you and you.’ He was not going to play their game. He was not going to show contrition or admit that he committed the crime so that he could get parole and he just stood defiant and said, ‘I’m innocent and that’s it.’”

A family member confirmed with CTV News Sunday, Milgaard – who was born in Winnipeg and had been living in Calgary – died at the age of 69.

“The overwhelming thing about David is his strength of character and his fortitude and his focus on setting things right,” Asper said.

In Milgaard’s case, that didn’t happen until 1992 following a review by the Supreme Court of Canada and an exoneration by DNA evidence in 1997. It took years of tireless advocacy by his mother Joyce on her son’s behalf and plenty of Milgaard’s own resilience and strength before he was freed.

Milgaard went on to advocate for other wrongfully convicted people and his photo is now featured in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg for his work as a human rights defender.

“I think what’s really important about David Milgaard is he did it for himself, of course, advocating for his freedom and wanting to change the system. But then once exonerated, he went back into that system and tried to change it for everyone,” said Isha Khan, CEO of the CMHR.

He had been pushing for an independent commission to review wrongful convictions in Canada.

“David Milgaard’s case was a seminal case in Canadian history and always will be,” said James Lockyer, a lawyer with Innocence Canada. “But more importantly now, he carried on his own work, or he started his work for the other wrongly convicted.”

Asper said that advocacy will continue by friends and colleagues in Milgaard’s honour.

“That’s what David was working on,” Asper said. “That’s what the Minister of Justice has on his desk now.”

David Lametti, Canada’s Justice Minister, said he’s committed to establishing a new commission to review wrongful convictions. The minister said he was profoundly saddened to learn Milgaard would not live to see it happen.

Asper said he and Milgaard were set to receive honorary doctorates of law from the University of Manitoba in June and he said they were both looking forward to seeing each other again.

Asper’s now working on ways to honour his friend, whose life and advocacy continues to shape the Canadian justice system.