David Milgaard was actively helping those who claim to have been wrongfully convicted until his sudden death, including two indigenous sisters who have been imprisoned for almost 30 years.
The victim of one of Canada’s most notorious miscarriages of justice, he spent 23 years in prison for a 1969 rape and murder he did not commit.
Milgaard died over the weekend after a brief 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 support” and that he was “like a brother, an angel” to her. she.
“I’m really heartbroken for him, but I honestly think he’s still looking out for us today,” she said in a phone interview.
She was speaking from the Keeseekoose First Nation in Saskatchewan after being cleared 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 then.
Milgaard wished him well a few days before his visit home, he said.
James Lockyer, a Toronto-based lawyer who helped with Milgaard’s exoneration in 1997 and helped found the defense organization Innocence Canada, was in Keeseekoose to meet with Quewezance on Monday.
Lockyer said he wouldn’t be working the case if it weren’t for Milgaard defending Quewezance, who was 20 when she was arrested for the murder of 70-year-old farmer Anthony Joseph Dolff near Kamsack, Sask.
His sister Nerissa, then 18, was also convicted and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 10 years.
Nerissa is incarcerated at an institution in Fraser Valley, British Columbia, where Lockyer said he first met her in person on Sunday.
Odelia said she spoke to Nerissa for the first time in a long time on Monday.
It has been about 19 years since the sisters last saw each other in person.
Lockyer said they were present when Dolff was fatally stabbed but were not involved in the murder. Someone who was a young man at the time confessed to the murder at trial and testified 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 talking with them and reading trial transcripts, he said.
Evidence that the sisters were involved in the murder depended on the police officers who arrested them, Lockyer said, explaining that the RCMP claimed they gave a series of statements that were not recorded and became “increasingly incriminating” to throughout the course. of five days.
A provincial judge ordered them to be sent to a nearby jail 24 hours after their arrest, he said, but mounted police held them for four more days.
Lockyer described them as “two young indigenous women, essentially at the mercy of a bunch of RCMP officers for five days with no protection.”
“It is evident to me that the statements that they gave that were later statements, that were incriminating, are not entirely reliable,” he said.
The sisters are part of the staggering statistic that indigenous women make up almost half of the women incarcerated in federal prisons when they make up less than five percent of Canada’s population, Lockyer said.
“Forget about the miscarriage of justice for a moment, they’re still (incarcerated), 20 years after they were eligible for parole,” Lockyer said.
“They need to be able to live the rest of their lives as free people.”
The only remaining route to overturn the Quewezance sisters’ convictions is through ministerial review, said Lockyer, who filed an application 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.
“So we have to convince her, and the minister himself, that this case is a miscarriage of justice,” he said.
In a statement mourning Milgaard’s death, the Aboriginal Peoples Congress said “the faith and strength he showed in the worst of times is an inspiring story that continues to galvanize defenders of the unjustly targeted.”
Deputy National Chief Kim Beaudin said Milgaard’s support for indigenous people “struggling within the Canadian justice system will not be forgotten.”
“Your work to help the Quewezance sisters has helped bring them closer to finding justice.”
Milgaard was just 16 years old when he was wrongfully accused and convicted of the 1969 rape and murder of a Saskatoon woman.
The Winnipeg-born teen was passing through town on a road trip with two friends when nursing assistant Gail Miller was raped and murdered.
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 Supreme Court of Canada to hear the case. His conviction was overturned and he was later exonerated 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 to Milgaard and awarded him a $10 million compensation package.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on May 17, 2022.
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