David Milgaard, who became famous for a murder he did not commit and, after 23 years in prison, went on to advocate against wrongful convictions, has died. He was 69.

David Milgaard, who became famous for a murder he did not commit and, after 23 years in prison, went on to advocate against wrongful convictions, has died. He was 69.

Milgaard’s family confirmed that he became suddenly and urgently ill late on Saturday night. He was admitted to hospital in Calgary, where he later died.

The exact cause of death is not known, but family said he did not have COVID-19. They’re planning a memorial service on Tuesday at 2 p.m.

"I’m shocked," said Ruth van Vierzen, Milgaard’s friend and fellow advocate for the wrongfully convicted.

A 17-year-old Milgaard was convicted in 1970 of murdering a Saskatoon nursing assistant. He was released from prison in April 1992 after federal Justice Minister Kim Campbell asked the Supreme Court to review new evidence that had been unearthed in his case. That new evidence included a new suspect — Larry Fisher, a serial rapist who’d committed a series of brutal assaults in Saskatoon both before and after the murder for which Milgaard was convicted.

Milgaard was formally exonerated in 1997 after DNA tests proved that Fisher was the killer. Since that time, Milgaard and his mother Joyce, who died in 2020, were tireless advocates for the wrongfully convicted.

Van Vierzen said she’d heard from Milgaard last week — he was preparing a speech for an in-the-works news conference. Milgaard was frustrated with Ottawa’s pace of creating an independent body to review wrongful conviction claims, and he wanted to speak to media to bring the issue back to the spotlight.

Milgaard met with Justice Minister David Lametti roughly two years ago to push for the independent body’s creation. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the establishment of such a commission a top priority for Lametti in 2019.

"It’s really sad for me to have heard this news (of Milgaard’s death) and know that he didn’t get to see (the commission) happen," van Vierzen said.

Milgaard had moments of extreme frustration at the lack of progress, she said.

"(He saw) that things aren’t improving," she said. "He kept this issue at the forefront."

He’d travel the country, speaking to universities from Carleton to McGill about his experience, wrongful convictions in the Canadian justice system and restorative justice.

"If he tried to pull back, someone would reach out and say, ‘This is what I’m going through,’ and then he’d step back in and help them," Van Vierzen said.

She said Milgaard’s case raised her awareness of Canada’s wrongful convictions.

"Until we have this independent body, we will continue to have these miscarriages of justice," she said, adding she and other advocates will hold the news conference Milgaard planned to speak at.

"We owe it to David, and we owe it to all Canadians to keep working, to see this commission created," van Vierzen said.

Minister Lametti took to Twitter to share his thoughts on Milgaard.

"David Milgaard was a tireless advocate for the wrongfully convicted, who desired to see the system changed after being wrongfully convicted himself," Lametti wrote. "I am deeply saddened to know that he will not live to see this happen. May we continue his incredibly important work in his memory."

Milgaard signed Lametti’s copy of Fully Completely, a Tragically Hip album which features the song that Milgaard’s case inspired — "Wheat Kings".

Lori Kuffner, an advocate, worked with Milgaard and often helped with his speeches.

She called him compassionate and kind.

"He’d be the type that would be driving down the street, and if he saw someone that was maybe homeless, he’d pick them up and take them for a hamburger."

David Asper was Milgaard’s lawyer during his case with the federal government. Both were scheduled to receive honorary doctorates of law from the University of Manitoba in June, the 30th anniversary year of his release.

"David was deeply damaged by his years in prison and in many ways, he never recovered from that experience," Asper said. "He also never stopped fighting for what he thought was right."

Jim McCloskey said he was struck by Milgaard’s sweetness and gentleness.

McCloskey founded Centurion Ministries in New Jersey. The group has freed more than 60 life and death row prisoners in the United States, along with Milgaard’s case and another Canadian’s.

McCloskey’s investigation was key to galvanizing the case against Larry Fisher, which ultimately freed Milgaard.

"Even after getting out of prison, he was that same man, someone who really cared about the suffering of other people," McCloskey said. "The fact that he never stopped trying to help other wrongfully convicted people is really remarkable."

The Milgaard family wants to thank those who helped him.

"He was always so thankful about the help he received," sister Susan Milgaard said. "He really wanted people to continue his cause, helping free the wrongfully convicted and justice."

Saskatchewan spent $11.2 million on a public inquiry into Milgaard’s wrongful conviction.

The final report was released in 2008 with 13 recommendations to reform prosecution and policing in Canada. Among them was a suggestion that the federal government establish an independent review commission to examine claims of wrongful conviction.

- With files from the Canadian Press

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

gabrielle.piche@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.