David Milgaard's sudden death a 'gut punch,' also a rallying cry for justice, Manitoba friends say

Manitobans who worked closely with David Milgaard over the years are mourning the longtime justice advocate's untimely death at the age of 69.

Former lawyer, friend call on Ottawa to establish independent body to assess wrongful convictions

David Milgaard, who spent 23 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murder, is pictured in a 2019 file photo. He died at the age of 69. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Manitobans who worked closely with David Milgaard over the years are mourning the longtime justice advocate's untimely death at the age of 69.

The Winnipeg-born man spent 23 years in Stony Mountain Institution for a rape and murder he did not commit and died in a Calgary hospital this weekend, a source close to the family confirmed.

David Asper started his career as a criminal defence attorney in 1986. His first major case was representing Milgaard, and they remained friends long after he was exonerated.

Asper spoke to Milgaard's family on Sunday morning and heard about his sudden death, news that Asper described as a "gut punch"

"It filled my heart with joy to see him as a free person. Needless to say, it's a really tough day today," Asper said.

David Milgaard (left) and David Asper (right) are pictured in a photo from the 1990s. Asper served as Milgaard's lawyer when he was wrongfully convicted. They remained friends after Milgaard's exoneration. (Submitted by David Asper)

Retired CBC Manitoba journalist Cecil Rosner, the co-author of When Justice Fails: The David Milgaard Story, said the man was an advocate until his last days.

Milgaard and Rosner last spoke on Thursday, and talked about two Keeseekoose women who were given life sentences for a crime they say they never committed.

In 1994, Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance were convicted of second-degree murder after the 1993 homicide of a 70-year-old farmer, Anthony Joseph Dolff, who was from the area of Kamsack, Sask. 

Longtime CBC Manitoba reporter and manager Cecil Rosner co-wrote a book about David Milgaard and his wrongful conviction. They stayed in touch years later. (Cecil Rosner/Facebook)

For the past 28 years, the women have proclaimed their innocence and say they were wrongfully convicted. Milgaard was part of the movement to have their convictions overturned.

Rosner admired Milgaard for his resilience in the face of so many challenges.

"He had a rough time after he got out ... I don't know how you can lead a normal life after spending so many years in jail at such a young age. But even so, he overcame a lot of that and did a lot of really useful things in his life after that," he said.

Championing Milgaard's cause

Milgaard was part of a working group aimed at creating an independent body at the federal level that would consider miscarriage of justice applications.

At this point in time, if a citizen has been wrongly convicted and they've exhausted all their appeals, they must beg the justice minister to reopen the case.

"That's our formal official way of doing things, which makes no sense," Rosner says.

Rosner says it's a shame Milgaard never saw the arm's length review board come to fruition.

David Milgaard in a Jan. 21, 1992 photo. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

"He was a constant advocate for that, and it's still not a reality in Canada. So I'm just really sad that he didn't live to see the day that's created," Rosner said.

The University of Winnipeg adjunct professor believes Milgaard wouldn't have been kept in prison as long if an independent review board had existed to review his case.

"When you have a system that's politicized, there's all kinds of other considerations that come into play before a government might decide to reopen a case or not reopen the case," he explained.

"If you have competent, impartial professionals, independent of police and Crown and government reviewing things, then you have a much better chance of a body looking at fresh evidence and saying, 'Oh no, something terrible has happened here, and this person should no longer be in jail, should no longer be convicted.' That's the kind of system David was advocating for."

Asper plans to continue that advocacy work following the death of his friend.

"There were lots of mistakes made in his process, in his wrongful conviction. And many of those mistakes are common in all other wrongful convictions. He was resolute in his advocacy. And to honour him, I will continue in that advocacy," he said.

The lawyer and businessman says the federal government has been urged to create an independent body for years.

"As a matter of principle, have the courage to do something, to act on something that all these external assessors or evaluators of the way the current system works on behalf of the people who are wrongly convicted and who've had to try to scrape and claw their way out of prison in a system that does not work," Asper said.

CBC News sought comment from the federal government's department of justice, but didn't immediately receive a response.

Milgaard, along with Asper, was scheduled to receive an honourary degree from the University of Manitoba on June 8.

David Milgaard, who spent 23 years in prison wrongfully convicted of murder, dead at 69

1 year ago
Duration 1:54
Justice advocate David Milgaard has died at the age of 69. He spent more than 23 years in prison, wrongfully convicted as a teenager for the 1969 rape and murder of Gail Miller, before he was released and eventually exonerated.

With files from Emily Brass