TORONTO — David Milgaard spent 23 years in a Canadian prison for a rape and murder he did not commit - and five years since his release trying to prove it. On Friday, new DNA evidence conclusively showed he was not the attacker.
It was an emotional moment for Mr. Milgaard as he shared hugs with supporters at a news conference in Winnipeg, where the findings of a British laboratory were announced.
After years of stony silence and denial that it had erred, Saskatchewan's justice ministry issued an apology and said it would look into the issue of compensation and a public inquiry into what went wrong.
Milgaard's mother, Joyce, who fought tirelessly for her son's release - including a confrontation with a former prime minister and a meeting with the queen of England - was ecstatic. "I'm feeling great," she said. "How many other people can look back on an experience that has changed the justice system of our country?"
But despite Milgaard's exoneration, which places his case among the "big three" wrongful conviction cases currently shaking Canada's criminal-justice system, some observers say there is little evidence so far of widespread reforms. Milgaard's DNA-backed exoneration, for instance, comes amid Ontario's highly publicized public hearings into the wrongful conviction of Guy Paul Morin, who spent 15 months in prison and another decade proving his innocence - also through DNA testing.
"I think these cases are just beginning to have an impact," says James Lockyer, who is Mr. Morin's lawyer. "It's hard to define ... But I have a sense that the [high-profile wrongful convictions] are having a significant impact on the attitudes of judges and [prosecuting attorneys.] I do not yet feel it's having an impact on police."
Crown attorneys, who are the prosecutors in Canada, are angry and at the same time troubled, he says, by revelations of police incompetence. Also, judges may begin to rethink the "evidentiary imbalance," wherein they have often excluded from court review evidence helping a defendant, he says.
PUBLIC attitudes are also pushing changes, says Stephen Aronson, an Ottawa lawyer who won exoneration for a man who spent 11 years in jail before his murder conviction was overturned. Public cynicism about the efficacy of the justice system is accelerated by such cases, he says.
"There was already a degree of cynicism about the justice system before these cases popped up," he says. "Most people still don't feel [the system] is hard enough on criminals. But then cases like Milgaard's ... and Morin's draw out even more public cynicism - like a two-edged sword."
Milgaard's ordeal began on Jan. 31, 1969, when the body of Gail Miller, a nurse, was found in a Saskatoon snowbank. She had been raped and stabbed to death. Milgaard, meanwhile, was traveling through the city that day.
By midyear, Milgaard had been arrested and charged with the murder. He was tried and sentenced to life in prison on Jan. 31, 1970. His mother believed his protests of innocence and asked for an official review, but few others did.
After rejecting a review once, Canada's Supreme Court agreed in 1992 to finally look into the matter again. This time, however, it had before it numerous reports and detective work revealing the existence of another suspect. It was a triumph when the court released Milgaard from prison saying he should receive a new trial. But even though the Saskatchewan government refused to retry him, he was never formally acquitted, and Mrs. Milgaard kept on pushing.
At that point, DNA testing was emerging as a science. Yet on two occasions, first in 1988 and in 1992, the procedure failed to obtain conclusive results. Finally, a new attempt was made this year using more sophisticated tests on the blood of the attacker left on the victim's clothes.
The results revealed on Friday showed no possible match with Milgaard. But the test appeared to implicate the other suspect, a serial rapist who had been released from jail in 1994. On Friday, Saskatchewan Justice Minister John Nilson formally offered Milgaard "the most heartfelt apology."
"I feel the struggle is over for me," Milgaard told the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper in an interview in Winnipeg. "The hardest thing has been the waiting."