Free at Last : David Milgaard

Byron Christopher

by Byron Christopher


May 16, 2022

David Milgaard — characterized as someone who became known for something he didn’t do — died suddenly in hospital in Calgary on Sunday, 15 May 2022. The ‘poster boy’ of the wrongfully convicted would have turned 70 in July. 

No one saw this coming.

This is a story about victims. Milgaard was one. Another casualty in this sorry mess — one we don’t hear much about anymore — is Gail Miller, a nursing assistant whose battered body was found in the snow in a back alley in Saskatoon in late January 1969. The 20-year-old had been raped and murdered — stabbed repeatedly with a paring knife.

                              [Courtesy of the Saskatoon Star Phoenix]

Back to David Milgaard. I knew David for more than 30 years — and knew of him for more than 50. In the beginning — and we’re talking late 1960s and 70s here — David Milgaard was just another news story.

In the early 90s, after David was freed from a penitentiary in Manitoba, we finally met.

As the years and decades slipped by, David and I kept in touch, often getting together, and usually for no particular reason. The man loved nature, especially fishing, horses … and camping in the Rockies.

David stayed at my place, and I stayed at his. We became friends. David always had something to convey, even if he didn’t say anything. I often wondered, what’s this guy all about?

The former prisoner was a living mystery, but aren’t we all?

Scattered throughout this post are photos, some old and some new. I’m hoping they provide a snapshot of the man I got to know.


When I heard that David Milgaard had died, my first reaction was a combination of shock and sadness — followed by a sense of peace. My old friend was finally free. 

News of David’s death spread rapidly … his demise was covered by every media outlet in the country. On the day following his death, views on his Wikipedia page reached nearly 35,000 views.

Late Saturday night [May 14th], David had been out camping with his daughter Julia [14] when he had trouble breathing. “Julia,” he said, “better call an ambulance.” An ambulance arrived and took them to a major hospital in Calgary.

David was at the Foothills for just a couple of hours when he was pronounced dead. A doctor said he had pneumonia [which made it difficult for him to breathe, putting a great stress on his heart.] I do not know the official cause of death.

David was separated from his wife, Cristina. Even so, Cristina rushed to the hospital after Julia called with the news dad was struggling. Mother and daughter were in a waiting room when David crossed over.

From talking to the doctor who tended to David, Cristina learned that he died peacefully. According to the physician, many people are fearful when they realize they’re about to die — but not David. “He was at peace,” he said. In telling me this story, Cristina added, “David is now in the arms of Jesus.”

It makes sense that David would finally be at peace because his entire life was anything but. The man struggled with being bi-polar, got in trouble as a runaway teen and eventually went down on a bogus murder charge.

Try to imagine being 16 and convicted of murder — the most heinous of crimes. Beyond crazy.

David recalls standing in the prisoner’s dock, and when the jury announced he was guilty of first-degree murder, he glanced at the public gallery and spotted his father, Lorne, sobbing. That hit him as he had never seen his Dad cry.

Although David was released from prison [and later exonerated and compensated with a multi-million dollar payment], I sensed he remained tortured by memories of his time behind bars, plus the fact that our criminal justice system could screw up so badly. David was not alone … about two dozen Canadians have been wrongfully convicted of murder. That is not a typo. Two dozen.

Twenty-two years is a heck of a long time to spend in prison when you know you’re innocent … and it’s even more difficult when so many people have ‘bought into the system,’ believing 100 percent you’re a murderer. What a terrible burden that was on David and his family. The shame and public scorn were something else. It was as though his Mom, Dad, brother and sisters had been handed prison sentences as well. More victims.

David once shared he’d been in prison so long he began to think that he actually did murder Gail Miller.


When David was released from Stony Mountain Penitentiary in 1992, he called me at CBC Radio in Edmonton from his mother’s townhouse in Winnipeg for his first interview. But I wasn’t at work to get his call. I was on the road, headed for Saskatchewan. However, I left a recorded message for David to talk to my good friend, reporter David Kirkham. The two Davids were soon leading our national newscasts.

David leaving prison for good: Susan, David and Joyce Milgaard. Photo courtesy of the Winnipeg Free Press. 

Milgaard was the lead story for a couple of days. What a huge scoop that was for the CBC. The news business is competitive, and it was a day for taxpayer-funded ‘Mothercorp’ to shine.

David was extremely loyal and sometimes, you’ll find that with prisoners. The cons can have more integrity than we give them credit for. David hung up the phone on a CBC television reporter who tried to scoop our interview after his call was put through to the wrong department. [That was never made public.]

After our interview, David then shut down all media interviews for several days. No one could reach him. It was professional of other media outlets to give full credit to the CBC when using David’s comments.


David then became a drifter. Less than a year after he left prison, he stood on my front porch in Edmonton — without any shoes. “Where the hell are your shoes?” I asked. He explained he sold them for cigarettes. This was, of course, years before David was compensated and became a millionaire.

He also stunk to high heaven, and so in the bathtub he went. I could hear the water splashing in the upstairs bathroom with David singing at the top of his voice. I thought, I guess that’s what freedom sounds like …

David wanted to see where I worked, and so I brought him around to our newsroom, just off 75th Street. He wanted to sit at my desk and have his picture taken. Here he is … ‘high on Coke.’

You may wonder why David would reach out to a journalist a thousand miles away. Quick story: David was given my name and phone number by Claire Culhane, a respected prison rights activist. He phoned initially to find out if a con he knew [from Newfoundland] had suffered after being shot and killed by guards to end an uprising at a federal pen in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. I told David what I knew … his friend lived for 15 minutes after getting hit in the back with a blast from a shotgun.

David called a few weeks later with a story. He revealed he’d fired his lawyer, Hersh Wolch. I recorded the interview — but didn’t run the story. David phoned the next day, and he was in a panic. “What did you do with the story?” he demanded. I advised I didn’t run it because he sounded too agitated, as though he was blowing off steam. “I owe you one!” he said, with great joy in his voice. I replied, “You don’t owe me anything, bud; all is good.”

I recall being with David on Stony Plain Road in Edmonton’s west end when he spotted a cigarette butt on the sidewalk. He picked it up, straightened it out, then flicked a Bic lighter and between puffs remarked, “I’m not proud …”

I said, “David, would you care to meet a police sergeant/acquaintance of mine?” But David would have no part of it; he wanted nothing to do with the police. He figured all police officers were bastards. It wasn’t until 10-15 years later that he said, “You know what, Byron? All police aren’t bad.” David was making some meaningful discoveries. The stain of a wrongful conviction was beginning to wear off.

I did ask David what it was like to not sleep in a tiny jail cell after so many years. What were his first nights like? Did he sleep well? He revealed he couldn’t sleep because the room was too large.

It was late one summer night, and David and I were booting down the Whitemud Freeway in Edmonton in my old car, a ’37 Olds. Without warning, David stuck his head out the window and began singing at the top of his voice, his hair blowing in the wind. I wanted to ask him, “What on Earth are you doing?” Then I realized David was celebrating his freedom. The wind rushing through your hair like that is something one doesn’t experience in the joint.

David loved nature, and he loved horses especially. He once treated me to a long trail ride at a ranch just west of Calgary. He wanted to say ‘thank you’ for believing in him.

Here’s an earlier shot of David with my daughter Sonja, an English rider instructor, with her horse ‘Marty.’  


David was married twice. He met his first wife, Marnie, on the street outside a library in downtown Vancouver. She’d gone out for a smoke and David bummed a cigarette from her. After his big settlement came in, Marnie and David did some travelling — to Australia. I recall getting emails from him when he was Down Under. Australia was my old ‘stomping grounds,’ and it was exciting to read David had been on a train to the Outback … and on the way there, passing through Port Augusta, where I worked at Radio 5AU, ‘Voice of the Spencer Gulf,’ in 1970-71. Small world.

David and Marnie would go their own ways.

On a trip to Europe, David met Cristina in Romania. David was full of life and full of secrets as well. He did not share with Cristina that he’d spent two decades in prison for murder. Not until Cristina sat on a couch in Winnipeg with David’s Mom, Joyce … the two going through a scrapbook … did she then realize that David was ‘famous.’

The couple married and had two children: Robert and Julia. Here are shots taken when the kids were young at their family home in Calgary.

Left: Joyce, Julia, David and Robert watching videos of the children on my camcorder. Right: David sharing a book on the Canadian Rockies with Julia.

It was in Calgary where David had a bizarre encounter with the police. Sporting a .22 rifle, of all things, David strolled through a suburb to do some wildlife hunting. Someone spotted a man walking around with a rife and phoned the cops. David was soon surrounded by police … but the officer in charge gave him a break and let him go. No charges, no news release.

Police told him he couldn’t walk down the street with a rifle. David seemed oblivious that it wasn’t kosher. In some ways, the man lived in another world. But I give David full credit. In spite of his challenges, he did his best and worked hard to adapt to life on the ‘outside.’ Clearly, he was a true survivor.

David loved fishing and camping, preferably in the wild. He had a private spot near Cochrane where he often took his children. One day I dropped by to do a little drone flying with him and the kids.

Here’s a photo of David and his bandits posing with a flag of New Brunswick …

David always had a soft spot for New Brunswick, and it’s strange to say that because he was once incarcerated at the federal pen at Dorchester [near Moncton] where he escaped in the 1970s with two other young prisoners. The cons didn’t get far … they  ended up at a farmhouse where the farmer’s wife put them to work doing dishes and cleaning the kitchen floor — all the while scolding them for using bad language.

I chided David about that. “What kind of a prison break is that, Shuffles? “We were just kids,” he shot back. All cons have nicknames, as you can imagine. David’s prison name was ‘Shuffles.’  Given the way David walked, it suited him.


Speaking of shots, it was in one of our trips to the Rocky Mountains, in a private location just south of Jasper, where David Milgaard, Mark Lewis [Edmonton Oilers Public Address announcer] and myself set up camp for a weekend of guy-talk, solving the world’s problems, trading jokes that even Hustler wouldn’t touch … and consuming alcoholic beverages.

We asked David, “Weren’t you shot?” David replied, “Yes, I was,” … then pulled down his pants to show us the bullet hole in his ass. “Know what was strange about that?,” David continued. I could hardly wait to find out. “I first felt the bullet hit my bum, then I heard the gunshot.” Good to know.

That’s how another of David’s escapes ended. He shared that his mother had also helped him escape. Good for Joyce.

I just loved this picture! We were out for a hike when I snapped it. Both Mark and David kinda look like escapees.

While enjoying a few brews, perhaps a lot more than a few, David would make his way to a small stream that ran alongside our campsite. There, he spotted a pair of mountain trout. This excited him. Every 10 minutes or so, David would walk to the stream and scamper back with an update … there are now THREE trout! Then FOUR … and FIVE! On and on this went until Mark said, “What’s with Milgaard and the fish?”

I explained that for a prisoner, a fish represents freedom … which is why there used to be small fish aquariums in the federal prisons. They’ve since been removed for security reasons. A piece of glass can be a deadly weapon.

We were short on driftwood for our camp fire and I took it upon myself to chop down a tall, dead tree close by. The tree came crashing down with a thud that sent branches flying everywhere. The noise must have alerted grizzlies ten miles away. David rushed over and said, “Hey, what’s the beef for cutting down a tree in a National Park?” I handed him the ax and said, “Hold this. I don’t have a thing to worry about, but you do. Remember, you’re the convicted murderer.”

Some Rocky Mountain visits were in the dead of winter with the temperature minus 15 or so. That didn’t stop David from lighting a fire in the snow — yes, in the snow — and enjoying some steaks. The man loved his steaks; you can imagine how many he got while in the joint.

These pictures taken in early 2018.

Left: Robert and David … Right: Author and David at a private site known as Negan Wutchee.

A few months after that trip, I received a package in the mail. David had framed a collage of seven photos with a message that read: “Byron, I had a good time on our trip. I thank you for it. I hope u like the pictures … maybe we can get Mark [Mark Lewis] to go out that way with us in the future. I plan to take Robert some day too. Thanks, David.”


In the spring of 2001, David spoke to my journalism class at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology [NAIT] in Edmonton. It went over well. They were surprised David Milgaard drove all the way from Vancouver to spend time with them, to share his thoughts about journalism and to field questions.

The Edmonton Journal’s crime reporter, Tom Barrett, did this write-up on David’s visit … [click to enlarge slightly].

[The real killer, Larry Fisher, died from cancer in 2015 while still serving time in British Columbia. He was 65. I once asked David what he would he do if he ever met Fisher. “I’d kill him,” he said. And who wouldn’t want to do the same? This is not to say that David wasn’t kind. He was. But people have a breaking point.]

I recall it was springtime when David came up to see my students. He rolled up in a fully-restored American beauty from the 1970s — a Plymouth Fury II. The car was so long it could not fit in my garage. David first spotted the vehicle in magazine ads while in the joint, and he fell in love with it.

Not to play shrink, but know that prisoners are always ‘escaping’ — in their minds, at least. They do it by reading magazines, watching TV, seeing movies … and by day-dreaming. And if they can get their hands on some dope [thanks to the guards], that too.

Speaking of escaping … a private moment worth sharing: During one of David’s visits to my house, I had the speakers cranked and was playing tunes off my iPod … when on came a beautiful song called ‘Break It To Them Gently’ [by Canadian Burton Cummings]. I was downstairs, David was alone upstairs in the living room.

David was unaware, but as I came up the stairs I watched him dance by himself — with his eyes closed —  slowly gliding across the wooden floor in his socks, so enjoying the moment.

Listen to the song, and you’ll know why he got lost in it. Pay attention to the words.

In the morning, David and I walked to a corner store to pick up two copies of the Edmonton Journal. [we made page 3]. “Look at this,” he said, “we’re in the same story.” David wanted to mail a copy of the newspaper to his mother in Winnipeg.

I also camped in the Rockies with former journalism student Ian Affleck, mentioned at the bottom of the story. One time in the mountains, we were surprised by David, who had driven up from Vancouver to find us. He did, amazingly enough, at a winter campsite just outside Jasper.

It was springtime, and there was still ice in the Athabasca River. The three of us were walking alongside the Athabasca and — without warning — David stripped naked and jumped into the freezing water. Holy crap I thought. David was under for 10-15 seconds, and for a moment, I feared the strong current had pulled him away, which would have sent him to his death — a plunge over Athabasca Falls downstream.

But David popped his head up and said, “Man, that’s cold!” Affleck looked my way and said, “Now that’s a free spirit!” I told David that if had tumbled naked over the falls he might have given a Japanese tourist a heart attack. I then asked that he get dressed so there was no chance he’d end up in some British tabloid.

When I contacted Affleck for a comment on this blog piece, he said, “David was genuine, not only a nice guy but approachable and thoughtful. I’ll miss him.”


As much as David liked tenting and ‘roughing it’, he also enjoyed stays in modern, comfortable cabins. One day we booked into a small cabin just outside Jasper. When we signed in, the man at reception recognized David’s name and said, “Are you THE David Milgaard?” “I believe I am,” David replied. “Well,” he said, “in that case, I’m going to give you a discount and upgrade your cabin at no extra charge.”

I whispered to David that we should do more shopping together.

For years, I had promised David a cabin stay, and this was it. Here’s a shot of him wearing my Australian Akubra hat at the dining table. Notice the typical roughing-it meal for men … granola bars, chips, peanuts and pie. David had juice. I enjoyed a vodka cooler.

David hit the sack early, climbing the stairs to his bed in the loft. I stretched out on the couch downstairs, watching a hockey game on TV. The Vancouver Canucks must have been playing because I soon fell asleep. I awoke around one in the morning with a God-awful pain in my leg … a terrible cramp of some sort that left me unable to move.

The pain was so powerful that I cried out in agony. My scream woke up David, and he scampered down the stairs. “What the hell is going on?” he said, rubbing his eyes. He was quite concerned, and he desperately searched the kitchen cupboards looking for pain medication. The shelves were empty.

The pain eventually went away, and all was good. I later went to see a doctor, who felt it could have been a blood clot. Tests showed it wasn’t.

The next morning, we were travelling the mountain highway [#93], back to Cochrane, and I brought up the mysterious attack at the cabin. David revealed he thought I was having a heart attack … and I said, “Imagine if I’d croaked — my Lord, the explaining you’d have to do to the police … and remember, you’re David Milgaard.” David’s response: “I already thought about that.”


My good friend, Muriel Black, often talked about how David had spent so much time in prison and how his mother had worked hard to get him out. I could see she had followed David’s case closely and was sympathetic to his plight.

Of course, Muriel had never met David. That was about to change …

David was in Edmonton, taking in the rides at West Edmonton Mall, and we popped around to Muriel’s house on the Southside. It was a total surprise visit. The old gal had no clue we were coming. “Jesus,” she said, as she opened the door, “I’m still in my housecoat … and who’s that with you?” David introduced himself. Muriel stood there in shock.

Muriel soon got dolled up, and we went out for a meal at a family restaurant. The two couldn’t stop talking.


I spent one night at David’s townhouse down by the river in Cochrane. It was a few years ago before David and I snuck off to the Rockies for yet another getaway.

I could tell David lived alone, just by the state of things. But hey, the guy was doing his best. David slept upstairs; I crashed on the futon/couch downstairs. Okay with me. The bed was very comfortable and I slept like a baby.

I woke up to the wonderful smell of coffee and the sound of bacon sizzling on the stove. David stood at the doorway of his kitchen and asked, “How was your night?” Fine, I said. At that point he shared something that topped the cigarette butt story …

The bed frame, David revealed, he had picked up for next to nothing at a garage sale, because it was bent. And without blinking an eye, he said he pulled the futon out of a garbage dumpster. “What??” I asked, immediately sitting straight up.

Most people would have been reluctant to say their bedding came from a dumpster, but it didn’t bother David. Nice to see the honesty. No one could ever accuse the man of being pretentious.


At the beginning of the piece, I indicated that David and I went back more than 50 years. Here’s the backstory:

I was doing TV news at CJDC in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, when I came across a news item about a 16-year-old who had been convicted of raping and murdering a nursing aide in Saskatoon, leaving her body in the snow.

            Author at CJDC Television in Dawson Creek, BC, in November 1969. Photo credit: Lori Seker

For years, I thought David Milgaard was an asshole, and I sometimes wondered whatever became of the prick — until one day, two decades later at the Edmonton Institution, I interviewed a prisoner who did time with David. “Milgaard is innocent,” he said. And I said, “Really, what makes you say that?” “Because another prisoner told me he had killed the girl — and got away with it.”

He identified the real killer as Larry Fisher, who’d been living in Saskatoon at the time of the homicide. After hearing that, I began working on David’s file — as did many other reporters.

It turns out that Gail Miller’s panties, stored in a cardboard box in the basement of a Department of Justice building in Ottawa, had Larry Fisher’s semen. It was powerful, game-over DNA evidence. Checkmate.

One morning over breakfast at my house, I shared with David how I first felt about him. I told him the whole story as David sat, sipping coffee at the kitchen table. I apologized for being so gullible and said I was so sorry for being part of the pack.

David stood up, walked over and gave me a big hug. “Let it go, Byron, let it go,” he said. I damned near cried.

David’s untimely death has shaken many of his friends and much of Canada really. One person who was  close to David was documentary producer Lori Kuffner of Airdrie, Alberta. “David’s legacy,” she says, “is that even though he was a wounded soul at times, he believed strongly in restorative justice.”

“David,” she pointed out, “wanted to make prisoners people too. His message to guys in the joint was, ‘I will never forget you.’”

Thank you Lori for pushing humanity in the right direction. Please stay in journalism.

To borrow a quote from actress and writer Joyce Miller, “Being negative only makes a difficult journey more difficult. You may be given a cactus, but you don’t have to sit on it.”

David was set to receive an Honourary Doctorate Degree from the University of Manitoba in June 2022. A number of years ago, David’s mother also received an honourary Doctorate Degree from the same university.


Ottawa broadcaster Steve Bujold of Down Home Corner interviewed David Milgaard a few years ago. Courtesy of YouTube, here’s that interview …


David and I often chatted on the phone. He’d call about prisoners’ rights, perhaps a particular file, a talk he was about to give at a school … or just to say hi, and when are we getting together again?

We traded hundreds of emails. Last week I emailed him a short video clip of a town that is far from everywhere — Edinburgh of the Seas [population about 400]. The village is in the South Atlantic on the small volcanic island of Tristdan da Cunha which has no landing strip. One can only reach the town by boat, a six-day journey.

It reminded me of the yearning David had to move to the Cook Islands around the time of his payout. That didn’t happen, but David never stopped wanting to get away from it all.

Check out his last email:


A private funeral service for David Milgaard is scheduled for Thursday, May 19th, in Cochrane. I will be there. It will be the only time David and I have been together wearing suits.

Rest In Peace, David. You deserve it.


50 of David’s family and close friends were on hand for his funeral service at the Cochrane Alliance Church on Thursday afternoon, May 19th [2022].

It was a who’s who of champions for social justice champions, prison reform and prisoners’ rights.

The eulogy was given by James Lockyer, the Toronto lawyer known for giving freedom to wrongfully-convicted prisoners [such as David and Guy Paul Morin]. The attorney characterized David as a man who thought of the pain of others even though he himself was behind bars, one who held no resentment in spite of a great injustice he had endured … and a thoughtful, kind father who loved his children — and who went out of his way to make the world a better place.

Also in attendance was Win Wahrer of Innocence Canada, the group that spearheaded the fight for David’s freedom … Kim Beaudin with the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples … and filmmaker Colin Bradley, who plans to produce a documentary on David.

Lockyer was one of six pallbearers. The others were Ron Dalton, Greg Rodin, Gavin Wolch, Jamie Nelson …, and the Author.

It seemed beyond surreal to see David in a coffin, cold and quiet. I couldn’t believe it when I got the word that David had died, and I still couldn’t believe it when I walked up to David’s coffin to say good-bye.  It was the only time we were together wearing suits.

The pallbearers lifted David’s casket into the back of the silver-coloured hearse, the door closed and off it went — to a crematorium.

David’s ashes will be sprinkled in the Rocky Mountains. That’s fitting.

A hearse arrives with David’s body for his memorial service[Photo: Author]

One more thing: perhaps David’s death will push the Government of Canada to set up a Review Commission to look into cases of possible wrongful convictions. The idea is that the Commission would be independent of both government and the judicial system — yet have judicial powers.

In other words, it could get things done a lot faster than now. Groups such as Innocence Canada have long called for such an organization. So has David Milgaard. The Commission  would be government-funded as well, unlike Wahrer’s group which must rely on donations and fund-raisers.

Those at David Milgaard’s funeral were hoping the Commission would carry David’s name, and perhaps it will. Fingers crossed that happens. That too would be fitting.


Gail Miller [1969] … Claire Culhane [1996] …Lorne Milgaard [2007] … Larry Fisher [2015] … Hersh Wolch [2017] Joyce Milgaard [2020] … David Milgaard [2022]




  1. Thank you for writing this Byron. It’s a very fine portrait of David. He was one of the few really good-in-his-heart people. He does deserve his peace now but still the world is less without him.

  2. It was nice to meet you at David’s funeral Byron….thanks for this insightful article. I really admired David’s efforts as an advocate for those wrongly accused. I also appreciated how David allowed the hard things in his life to shape him into a “better not bitter” person and with God’s help, make a positive difference in our world. May David’s life inspire and encourage others to do the same.