This opinion was originally published in the Calgary Herald on October 1, 2008.
Mom's the word: Milgaard ruling incomprehensible
"If it was your child, what would you do?"
Wednesday, October 01, 2008
When Justice Edward MacCallum issued his report last week on David Milgaard's wrongful conviction, he accused David's mother, Joyce, of "using" the media to further her son's cause. Well, looking back now, as a former reporter for a Winnipeg newspaper, who covered Joyce's numerous press conferences, wrote stories about her battle to free her son, and was at the prison gates the day David was released, all I can think of is the line from that Bill Withers' song: "If it feels this good being used . . ."
Judge MacCallum, what do you think Joyce should have done? Sit at home and keep quiet, hoping that just by chance, someone might notice David was in prison for a crime he didn't commit? Write courteous letters to Saskatchewan justice officials and be written off by them in turn as one of the many cranks out there?
There isn't a mother in Canada who doesn't understand what Joyce did and why she went about it the way she did. You fight. How could you not? Doing anything less simply doesn't occur to you. The son who is wrongly convicted as a teen doesn't exit the gate of Stony Mountain penitentiary until he is a man of 40, but he is finally free. I ask you, Judge MacCallum, what should Joyce have done differently?
"(MacCallum) didn't say," Joyce says, reached in Toronto Tuesday. The report gave the impression that "nobody did anything wrong, except me. We were the bad guys. It was hurtful. It was hard to read those statements."
Joyce calls the inquiry a waste of time, except for its recommendations, which include the establishment of an independent review board for wrongful conviction cases.
"My whole purpose was to thank the media. I wouldn't have gotten David out if it weren't for the media," Joyce says. "If it was your child, what would you do?"
The road to Stony Mountain prison runs past a large pond and winds up the hill to the forbidding limestone edifice at the top. The prison has been there since 1876. The road to the gate borders a field where, during David's time behind bars, the inmates at Rockwood, the prison's minimum security section, raised a herd of beef cattle.
School Road, in the town of Stony Mountain, borders the other side of the prison. School Road is lined by a day-care centre, curling rink, cemetery and K-8 school -- all within almost shouting distance of the prison. In the field between the prison and school, thick with mosquitoes in summer, the Canada Day fireworks display is held.
The prison's proximity means town residents can hear the guards issuing mundane orders to the inmates about exercise period being over, or that so-and-so is to report to the kitchen. It also means that officials have had periodic trouble with "throw-overs" -- drug packages tossed over the prison fence by the friends of inmates who hide in the wooded lots of homeowners along School Road.
In 1992, the Supreme Court quashed David's conviction for the 1969 murder of Saskatoon nurse Gail Miller, and he walked through those prison gates into a crowd of media, supporters and lawyers, pale, fragile, and understandably inarticulate at his newfound freedom. A few years later, DNA evidence exonerated him once and for all.
In June 2007, Joyce spoke on the occasion of receiving an honorary doctor of laws degree from the University of Winnipeg: "During the 30 years it took to get David cleared and compensated, I spent a great deal of time in prayer. I talked to God a lot. I remember once reading in our textbook, 'Trials are proofs of God's care' and I said to God, 'I just wish you wouldn't care so much!' But He did and He does, and I learned to trust Him and to see a higher purpose in what we went through."
Joyce's purpose all those years was expressed in three words on the signs plastered to her car, and on the buttons that studded her purse and were pinned to her coat. Those three words were: "Free David Milgaard." No thanks to the justice system, David is free.
"I think he's done wonderfully well. To see him come out of this has been wonderful," Joyce says. Part of David's journey included a trip to Brazil where he was deeply moved by the suffering of the poor. "This was his way of healing," she says. He's also written a book of poetry.
The last time I went home to Manitoba, I drove past Stony Mountain prison on my way to visit friends in the town. Everything is just as it was -- the road leading up to the gate, the tranquil pond with birds soaring above, the barbed wire fences, the prison watchtowers, the drive along School Road, and the prairie stretching away to the horizon, as if it couldn't distance itself fast enough or far enough from the ugly yellow prison on the hill. David Milgaard would still be in there, if it weren't for his mother.
How MacCallum can castigate her is incomprehensible. Joyce Milgaard is the kind of mother we all wish we had -- and one we fervently hope we're never called on to be.