AT 8:30 A.M. on January 31, 1969, the bloody, frozen body of 20-year-old Gail Miller was found in a Saskatoon alley by a child on her way to school. The temperature was -40' F, so cold that the air was frozen into a blue ice fog, but it was apparent from her torn and dishevelled clothing that Gail Miller had been raped as well as murdered. She had been stabbed 27 times with a small knife, and had bled to death about 7 a.m.
A few blocks away, 16-year-old David Milgaard and two friends, Ron Wilson and Nichol John, were driving up and down the streets looking for the house of David's friend, "Shorty" Cadrain. They found the Cadrain house about 9 a.m., stayed there all day, and in the late afternoon headed west with Cadrain in the car. When Cadrain returned to Saskatoon in early March, he voluntarily reported to the police that Milgaard had arrived with blood on his clothes and had seemed in a hurry to get out of town; Cadrain said Milgaard later asked him to "wipe out" Wilson and John because "they knew too much." After repeated interrogation by the police, Wilson also incriminated Milgaard, and Nichol John gave an eye-witness account of David stabbing Gail Miller in the alley. She recanted on the witness stand, but Milgaard was nonetheless convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
He is still there, and for 22 years he has steadfastly proclaimed his innocence. Among the many people Milgard has convinced are the authors of this book, two Winnipeg television producers. Carl Karp and Cecil Rosner finger a new suspect, Larry Fisher, who is currently in jail for a series of vicious rapes; but Fisher vehemently denies any knowledge of the Miller murder, and Karp and Rosner produce no compelling evidence connecting him to it.
Whodunit? Circumstantial evidence and unreliable witnesses make the David Milgaar story remarkably ambiguous, and it is unfortunate that Karp and Rosner give us their "not guilty" verdict right off the top. Milgaard is a strikingly handsome youril man who looks the picture of innocence; however, at the time of Gail Miller's murder Milgaard was a runaway, a school drop-out, a vagrant, and a petty thief with a personality people described as "manipulative." His nickname in the hippie subculture was "Hoppy," a term Karp and Rosner innocently interpret as Milgaard's penchant for hopping into bed with girls, whereas it is actually short for "hophead" or druggie. His friends Wilson and John were heavy LSD users, yet Karp and Rosner fail to explore Milgaard's own drug use or the extent of his personality problems: he had been placed in a psychiatric centre and later a boys' school at the age of 13, and while in jail was diagnosed as having some of the features of a psychopathic personality.
When justice Fails is a polemic for the defence, and it tends to "cook" the evidence, giving great weight to those circumstances that exonerate Milgaard and brushing by those that incriminate him. The Larry Fisher story is a fascinating link: Fisher and his wife, Linda, were living in the basement of the Cadrain house at the time of the murder, rape at knifepoint was characteristic of Fisher's sexual assaults, and Fisher rode downtown on the same bus -as Gail Miller. Fisher, however, had not been convicted of rape in 1969, his work record was excellent, and he denied any knowledge of the crime when questioned by police at the bus stop. Gail Miller's body showed no sign that intercourse had been forced, a circumstance that led the prosecutor to speculate that she was the victim of a purse-snatching and had been raped after she was dead.
David Milgaard had no record of violence or rape and he co-operated completely with the police, yet in a small, straitlaced city like Saskatoon, a hippie was an ideal suspect. Karp and Rosner are critical of Milgaard's lawyer for refusing to put David on the witness stand, but to have done so would have left him open to damaging cross-examination, and Milgaard appears to be almost totally inarticulate. He has also been a very difficult prisoner - he once threatened a guard with a knife and has escaped from custody twice. Karp and Rosner explain his behaviour as anger at the injustice of his imprisonment, but it seems to have been more irrational impulse, and he has been repeatedly denied parole.
David Milgaard would have been forgotten except for the crusade to free him launched by his mother Joyce. Acting as her own lawyer and private eye, she tracked down transcripts and witnesses and even re-enacted the Murder on location until she was certain that David could not have killed Gail Miller. Assisted by the Winnipeg lawyers Hersh Wolch and David Asper, she persuaded justice Minister Kim Campbell to request the Supreme Court of Canada to review David's case; and with the court's verdict not yet in, public opinion has already swung in Milgaard's favour.
I was more inclined towards Milgaard's innocence before I read this book than I am now. Karp and Rosner have not found the smoking gun, their coverage of the murder investigation is inadequate, and they have bought Milgaard's story hook, line, and sinker. Milgaard reminds me of a famous Winnipeg thief I knew, Ken Leishman, the "flying bandit" who charmed the city into making him a hero 20 years ago. Perhaps David Milgaard will do the same.