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Hope remains: David Milgaard’s legacy in hands of next generation

Former Acting Dean of Law, David Asper, Q.C. to accept Honorary Degree on friend’s behalf

On Wednesday, June 8, 2022 at 9:30 a.m., David Milgaard was to have taken the stage beside his long-time friend, David Asper, Q.C., at the University of Manitoba’s Convocation ceremony. Together, they were to receive honorary Doctor of Laws degrees that had been announced in January, 2020, but due to the pandemic, could not be officially awarded. The moment would have honored their respective remarkable lifetime achievements. Instead, Asper, former Acting Dean of the Faculty of Law (2020-2021), will stand alone on the stage facing Class of 2022 Juris Doctor students, accept his own – plus his friend’s award posthumously, and pass on Milgaard’s legacy of hope for the wrongfully convicted, to the next generation of lawyers.

Milgaard died at age 69 this past weekend in a Calgary hospital after a short illness, as reported by the CBC. Born in Winnipeg, he spent 23 years in Stony Mountain Institution for crimes he did not commit. Asper’s first major case as a criminal defence lawyer was representing Milgaard, and they remained friends long after. Since his exoneration, Milgaard had been working to effect change to ensure similar miscarriages of justice would not happen to anyone else. Recently, he had been part of a working group focussed on creating an independent commission to investigate and adjudicate applications by individuals claiming to be wrongfully convicted, that would be more efficient and take less time than existing procedures.

“The ‘system’ isn’t inanimate,” Asper said, when asked to describe the material impacts he has witnessed Milgaard’s efforts having on the Canadian justice system. “It’s made up of people, and I think David’s biggest impact was creating a much higher level of awareness about wrongful convictions. He broke through the stereotype of the so-called innocent prisoner and made people understand that some of them actually are, and that we need to do something about it.”

Since Milgaard was released, certain procedures, practices and attitudes have changed, Asper said. “The combination of the Donald Marshall case, Milgaard and Guy Paul Morin, brought huge attention to a variety of systemic issues that were amplified by many subsequent wrongful conviction cases,” he explained. “All participants in the system became much more attuned to issues such as disclosure, forensic science/ ‘junk science’, jailhouse informants, false confessions, police and crown tunnel vision, and many other related issues.”

Asper added that “Whenever any of these types of issues are in play at trial, judges have become very careful with both allowing the evidence and in their instructions to juries.”

He also noted that shortly after Milgaard was freed, the Federal Department of Justice changed its approach to Criminal Code of Canada s. 696 applications (for ministerial review on the grounds of miscarriage of justice) and created what has become known as the Criminal Convictions Review Group.

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