For nearly three decades, Joyce Milgaard told anyone who would listen that her son David was an innocent man trapped in a nightmare, sentenced to life in prison at age seventeen for a rape and murder he did not commit.
From the time David was imprisoned in 1970, Joyce Milgaard pleaded with prime ministers, justice ministers, lawyers, scientists, church groups, police and the media to achieve her son's freedom.
Finally, David was released from prison in 1992, and in the summer of 1997, his name was cleared. DNA testing conducted in a laboratory in England conclusively proved what Joyce had always maintained -- that her son was the victim of a gross injustice when he was convicted and imprisoned for the murder of nursing aide Gail Miller of Saskatoon.
Joyce Milgaard's first-person story is an inspiring example of the unbreakable bond between a mother and her child, an illustration of the supportive strength of religious faith, and an empowering victory for the human spirit.close this panel
Police At Our Door
I was puzzled but not overly concerned when the two plainclothes police detectives knocked on the door of my home in the tiny prairie town of Langenburg, Saskatchewan, and asked, "Are you David Milgaard's mother?"
It was a late afternoon in May 1969, and I was about to prepare dinner for Chris, Susan and Maureen, my three youngest children, while my husband, Lorne, was getting ready for his job as night-shift foreman of a potash mine. My oldest child, sixteen-year-old David, was selling magazines door to door in Prince George, B.C. We weren't used to detectives at the door of our little house, but we weren't afraid of the law either. I had a simple, happy life then, tending a big garden, making my own pickles and learning to bake bread from a neighbour. I was taking figure-skating lessons with my daughters and had no complaints. Life was good.
I invited the City of Saskatoon detectives in and served them coffee as they asked their questions about David. They were polite enough as they told me that David and two of his friends had been seen in Saskatoon in January, the same day a twenty-year-old nurse's aide named Gail Miller was raped and murdered.
I hadn't heard of the Gail Miller murder case until then. We didn't read the Saskatoon newspaper, the Star Phoenix, and in those days, television news was not nearly as important as it is today. The officers described a horrible crime, and the more we heard of it, the sadder we felt, as Gail Miller sounded like a sweet, caring girl. She grew up in a large farm family of six sisters and three brothers near the prairie village of Laura. Her grandmother had paid for her move to Saskatoon so she could study to be a nurse's aide and someday work with babies. She had lived in a drab one-room apartment in a boarding house. On January 31, 1969, at eight-thirty in the morning, schoolchildren found her facedown in a snowbank near her boarding house. Her white uniform was torn and stained with blood from dozens of stab and slash wounds. Whoever attacked her had clearly been in a rage.
The grisly crime had hit sleepy Saskatoon hard. The city had had only one murder in the past two years, and naturally, residents were shocked and eager for justice. There had been a good deal of fear in the city in the months before the murder, I would later learn. On December 14, the Star Phoenix had published a police warning that women should not walk in dark areas of the city because of a series of rapes and assaults. The article said the rapist first talked to women, then took them into alleys and attacked them. Since I hadn't followed the news reports, I was blissfully unaware when the police officers arrived at our door.
It seems ridiculous to me that the police suspected that David might be Gail Miller's killer. I knew David was no angel, and that he had been in plenty of trouble, but nothing involving violence. Over the past couple of years, David had run away a few times with his girlfriend. They had travelled over much of Canada and the northwestern United States, living mostly through panhandling, scrounging and welfare. Each time we had called the police and they had hauled him back, but even through this unsettled time, there were no charges related in any way to violence. That simply wasn't David. I was grateful that his younger brother, Chris, did not follow in his footsteps. Chris was always so good and dependable; I never had to worry about him. As a mother I would often say to David, "Why can't you be more like your brother? He has made friends here. He's doing well. Why can't you be satisfied?"
He was a free spirit, a hippie, experimenting, like so many others in the 1960s, with soft drugs and free love. David's friends had even nicknamed him Hoppy, because he hopped in and out of bed with a number of girls. David wasn't much of a drinker. He liked soft drugs more. He had smoked marijuana from age thirteen and took LSD occasionally from age fourteen. There had also been some experimenting with amphetamines, barbiturates and, a couple of times, even heroin. We had huge arguments about his use of drugs and his choice of friends. I prayed that he would be shown that he was walking down the wrong road. At the time, I could only hope it would pass with him, as my own unsettled times had passed with me.
One day early in 1968, a man had come to the door selling magazines for Maclean Hunter. David could do this, I thought. So I asked the salesman to come back and meet my son. I realized David was very young, but I used to sell magazines for Maclean Hunter, and it had been good for me. David got the job and was an instant success. Like me, he was a natural at selling magazine subscriptions, and really enjoyed trying to talk people into buying them. Our second son, Chris, also got involved in selling magazines in May of 1969, after he finished the school year. Chris and David went out on the road together. Sometimes they'd be gone a month at a time, although if they were in Saskatchewan, they came home for the weekends. It was good money and they were getting to travel. I knew that Maclean Hunter had a reputation for running very good crews, and that supervisors didn't take any kind of nonsense from the kids. To me, it was a wonderful answer to David's problems, because in a small town like ours, there weren't many places young people could find work. I felt he was well on his way by the time the police officers came to our door.
I was upset when the police left, and Lorne comforted me, as he always did. However, deep down, I felt it was no more than a mistake that would be sorted out before long. Things can't go that crazy.
A couple days after the police visit, David phoned from Prince George to say he heard the police were looking for him and he was going to turn himself in to clear the matter up quickly. I agreed that this was a good idea. David told me a little about his trip to Saskatoon that January. He and his friends Ron Wilson and Nichol John had spent the last money they had fixing up the car so they were broke when they left Regina. They went to get his friend Albert (Shorty) Cadrain because they were sure he would have some money. As soon as I knew that they had no money for drugs or alcohol, I knew there was no possible way he might be guilty
The next day, David went to the police in Prince George. True to his easygoing nature, he hadn't been worried when they questioned him earlier about Gail Miller's rape and murder. He wasn't an innocent choir-boy type, but he didn't see how anyone could seriously think he was a killer. To help police, he voluntarily gave them blood, saliva, semen and hair samples and drew maps of the area for investigators. The sooner they finished with him, the sooner they could catch the real killer.
"Why didn't you tell us?" I asked months later, when David finally told me.
"I didn't think anything of it," David said. "It wasn't me. I didn't do it."
As David later said, "Naive isn't the word. I really believed it. I was trying my best as a young person to help the police. This had to be resolved. It was a terrible crime." Despite his hippie lifestyle, David had a typically Canadian faith in the system, and trusted that the police would find the real killer.
He couldn't have been more wrong.
Joyce Milgaard's relentless fight to free her son and clear his name has struck an enormous chord with people across Canada. She now lives in Winnipeg.
Peter Edwards is an award-winning journalist who has been a reporter for the Toronto Star for ten years. He is the author of four non-fiction books, and has been shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award.close this panel