Innocents: Wheat Kings and Pretty Things

David Milgaard wrongful convictionThis is an ongoing series telling the stories of wrongful convictions in North America. To read more of these stories, please click here. If you have a story of someone wrongfully convicted, or you were yourself and want to talk about it, please email me at mommy@godlessmom.com. See my two previous series on the American Justice System, The Ultimate Price and Reasonable Doubt

Sundown in the Paris of the prairies
Wheat kings have all treasures buried
And all you hear are the rusty breezes
Pushing around the weathervane Jesus

Deep in the Canadian winter, in 1969, a woman’s body was found, lifeless in a snowbank in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She had been raped and brutally murdered. Gail Miller had been a nursing student. She was only twenty years old.

At the time, three teenaged friends had just arrived in Saskatoon from Regina, after making plans to drive across Canada. David Milgaard, Ron Wilson & Nichol John, were to set out from Regina, pick up the fourth road tripper, Albert Cadrain in Saskatoon, and drive until they hit Vancouver. They did just that; having picked up Cadrain, they made their way across the nation.

Somewhere during the trip, however, Cadrain caught wind of a $2000 reward (close to $15,000 by today’s standards) for information leading to the arrest of Gail Miller’s killer.

In March, 1969, just two months after Gail was found dead, and freshly home from his cross-Canada road trip, Cadrain went to the police and reported that he’d seen his friend, David Milgaard, with blood on his clothes, the day of Gail’s murder.

In his Zippo lighter he sees the killer’s face
Maybe it’s someone standing in a killer’s place
Twenty years for nothing, well, that’s nothing new
Besides, no one’s interested in something you didn’t do

The Saskatoon police immediately opened up an investigation, interviewing Cadrain and Milgaard’s other friends, Wilson and Johns. Unable to accept that Milgaard had an alibi when both Wilson and Johns reported he’d been with them, the police repeatedly interviewed the two, over and over. Miraculously, the two friends began to change their stories more and more drastically, until Nichol finally came out and said she’d seen the actual murder take place.

Exactly one year after Gail’s body was found, David Milgaard, a seventeen year old boy, was convicted of her rape and murder, and sentenced to life in prison.

There’s a dream he dreams where the high school’s dead and stark
It’s a museum and we’re all locked up in it after dark
Where the walls are lined all yellow, grey and sinister
Hung with pictures of our parents’ prime ministers

Ten years later, after numerous attempts to have his conviction reviewed, and being targeted unendingly for physical and sexual assault while behind bars, Milgaard finally took matters into his own hands and flew the coop. He busted out of prison and remained on the run for over two months. Unfortunately for David, this resulted in him being captured after being shot and then sent back to prison.

Milgaard, securely locked up once again, set his sights on proving his innocence. After several rejected applications for review, in 1991, Canada’s soon to be first female Prime Minister and then Justice Minister, accepted the application and set her plans in motion to review the case.

The review was granted based on the fact that new evidence had been made available, such as the recantation of his statements and testimony by Ron Wilson, as well as a confession to six assaults by a man who rented out the basement suite in Cadrain’s parent’s home, Larry Fisher. After the review, the Supreme Court of Canada offered its recommendation: overturn Milgaard’s conviction and retry the case with the new evidence. The attorney general of Saskatchewan, instead, waived the new trial, but kept the recommendation Milgaard’s conviction be dropped. He was released in 1992.

Late breaking story on the CBC
A nation whispers, “We always knew that he’d go free”
They add, “You can’t be fond of living in the past
‘Cause if you are then there’s no way that you’re going to last”

In the years that followed his release, further investigation by the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC, now Innocence Canada) into what went wrong in his case included a DNA test of the rape kit evidence. The DNA matched that of Larry Fisher. It also uncovered the fact that in 1980, Larry’s wife, Linda, had confided in Saskatoon police that she thought her husband may have been responsible for Miller’s murder. The police dismissed this evidence, which would have shaved 12 years off of the time Milgaard spent in prison.

Milgaard was granted $10 million in compensation for the time he lost in prison.

This was an iconic case in Canadian history. It infiltrated our media for decades. Canadian pop culture has been sprinkled with references to the plight of David Milgaard, not the least of which is Gord Downie’s masterfully poetic lyrics for the hip song, Wheat Kings:

Further reading:

This is an ongoing series telling the stories of wrongful convictions in North America. To be notified when the next one is posted, please fill out to subscribe:

To read more of these stories, please click here. See my two previous series on the American Justice System, The Ultimate Price and Reasonable Doubt.

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If you have a story of someone wrongfully convicted, or you were yourself and want to talk about it, please email me at mommy@godlessmom.com

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  • Robert Karma

    I can’t imagine being imprisoned for a crime I didn’t commit. This is why I find our justice system here in America to be so flawed. It is clearly rigged against the poor and minorities. When I worked for the state as a child abuse/neglect investigator, the alleged perps I investigated ran the spectrum of society. It was difficult to deal with those who have wealth because they could hide behind the lawyers to thwart us. If you were poor, you could be at the mercy of a botched investigation. I know I always did my best because children’s welfare was at stake but mistakes can be made. Seeing these people deal with the criminal justice system was eye-opening because having resources made a huge difference in the outcomes in court. There is a lot of pressure for the DA’s office to get convictions so they can tout their numbers when they run for reelection. Add in the privatization of prisons and it can be an ugly, volatile mix of abuse of those who can’t afford legal representation versus those who can load up on lawyers and game the system. Budgets have been severely cut for public defenders so having a court appointed lawyer doesn’t really help the defendant that much. Why there isn’t more outcry over this is beyond me. It certainly exacerbates the anger & mistrust found in low-income, minority communities that bear the brunt of these unjust practices.

    • I fully agree with all of that. The entire system is so unjust – calling it justice is practically sacrilegious. Due process should have nothing to do with money.

  • Virtual Atheist

    C$10million. Sounds like a lot of money doesn’t it… Yeah, right! What price a life ruined by incompetence and negligence by the forces of justice, law and order?