Until his sudden death, David Milgaard actively helped people who say they were wrongfully convicted, including two Indigenous sisters who have been incarcerated for nearly 30 years.
The victim of one of Canada’s most notorious miscarriages of justice, he spent 23 years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit in 1969.
Milgaard died over the weekend after a short illness at the age of 69.
Odelia Quewezance, who was convicted of second-degree murder in a 1993 murder in which she denies involvement, told The Canadian Press that Milgaard was her “biggest supporter” and was “like a brother, a angel” for her.
“I am truly heartbroken for him, but I sincerely believe today that he is still watching over us,” she said in a phone interview.
She was speaking from Keeseekoose First Nation in Saskatchewan after being approved for a brief home visit, her first in years, she said.
Her husband first contacted Milgaard about two years ago about her case, Quewezance said, and they had communicated often since.
Milgaard wished her luck a few days before her home visit, she said.
James Lockyer, a Toronto-based attorney who helped exonerate Milgaard in 1997 and helped found the advocacy organization Innocence Canada, was in Keeseekoose to meet with Quewezance on Monday.
Lockyer said he wouldn’t be working the case if it wasn’t for Quewezance champion Milgaard, who was 20 when she was arrested in the murder of 70-year-old farmer Anthony Joseph Dolff, near Kamsack, Saskatchewan.
His sister Nerissa, then 18, was also found guilty and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 10 years.
Nerissa is in jail at a facility in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley, where Lockyer said he first met her in person on Sunday.
Odelia said she spoke with Nerissa for the first time in a long time on Monday.
It has been approximately 19 years since the sisters have seen each other in person.
Present but not involved, according to the lawyer
Lockyer said they were present when Dolff was fatally stabbed, but were not involved in the murder. Someone who was a youth at the time confessed to the murder at trial, testifying that the sisters were not involved, he said.
Milgaard had urged Lockyer to look into the sisters’ case. He decided to take it on after speaking with them and reading the trial transcripts, he said.
Proof that the sisters were involved in the murder depended on the officers who arrested them, Lockyer said, explaining that the RCMP claimed to have made a series of statements that had not been recorded and which became “increasingly incriminating” over time. of five days.
A provincial judge had ordered they be sent to a nearby jail 24 hours after their arrest, he said, but the pair were held by RCMP for four more days.
Lockyer described them as “two young aboriginal women, basically at the mercy of a whole bunch of RCMP officers for five days without any protection.”
“It seems obvious to me that the statements they made, which were the subsequent statements, which were incriminating, are completely unreliable,” he said.
The sisters are part of the staggering statistic that Indigenous women make up nearly half of women incarcerated in federal prisons, yet they make up less than 5% of Canada’s population, Lockyer said.
“Forget the miscarriage of justice in their trial for a moment, they are still [incarcerated]20 years after being eligible for parole,” Lockyer said.
“They must be able to live out the rest of their lives as free people.”
The only avenue remaining to have the Quewezance sisters’ convictions overturned is through ministerial review, said Lockyer, who filed a petition with Justice Minister David Lametti on their behalf in December.
The minister has appointed a lawyer in Ottawa to review the case on his behalf, Lockyer said.
“We then have to convince her, as well as the minister himself, that this case is a miscarriage of justice,” he said.
In a statement mourning Milgaard’s death, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples said “the faith and strength he showed in the worst of times is an inspiring story that continues to motivate advocates for those unjustly targeted.”
National Vice-Chief Kim Beaudin said Milgaard’s support for Indigenous people “who are struggling within the Canadian justice system will not be forgotten.”
“Her work to help the Quewezance sisters has helped them get closer to justice.”
Milgaard was just 16 when he was charged and later wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of a woman in Saskatoon in 1969.
The Winnipeg-born teenager was passing through the city on a road trip with two friends when caregiver Gail Miller was raped and killed.
Milgaard had described the prison as “a nightmare”.
He was released in 1992 after his mother, who fought tirelessly to clear his name, pushed for the case to be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada. His conviction was overturned and he was later cleared by DNA testing in 1997.
A man named Larry Fisher was convicted in 1999 of first-degree murder in Miller’s death and sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 2015.
The Saskatchewan government issued a formal apology and awarded Milgaard $10 million in compensation.