David Milgaard and his mother, Joyce,
Outside Canada's Supreme Court in Ottawa, Jan 22, 1999
David Milgaard was a 16-year old hippie from Winnipeg, Manitoba when he was sentenced to life in prison in 1969 for the brutal rape and murder of a 20-year old nurse named Gail Miller. He was convicted because he was a drifter and a no-good long-haired dope-smoking hippie.
Although he was in prison for 23 years for that rape and murder, David Milgaard did not commit that crime.
David's mother, Joyce Milgaard, brought the case to public attention, and actually confronted Prime Minister Brian Mulroney on television to demand a new trial. In 1992, Milgaard was freed from prison after another Canadian Prime Minister, Kim Campbell, directed the Supreme Court of Canada to retry his case, and the province of Saskatchewan then refused to prosecute him before the Supreme Court. After his release, the evidence used to convict Milgaard in 1971 was submitted to new DNA testing methods. As a result of this DNA testing, in 1997, Milgaard was completely cleared of the crime and legally absolved of all charges. The DNA evidence proved he could not have killed Gail Miller. He was completely innocent. David Milgaard was 45 years old when his name was finally cleared. The man who committed the murder for which David Milgaard was wrongfully convicted, Larry Fisher, died in prison one year ago at the age of 65.
Here's where courage comes into the story. During his 23-year imprisonment, Milgaard was given 20 opportunities for parole. In not one of those parole hearings did he make a request for an early release. Not once. Why? Because to obtain parole, he would be required to admit his guilt in the crime and demonstrate remorse to the parole board for his actions, something he absolutely refused to do. If he had accepted responsibility for Gail Miller's death, Milgaard could have been released after only 7 or 8 years. They weren't asking him for a confession; he was already convicted of the crime. They didn't need his confession. They were only asking him to say he was sorry for a murder he didn't commit. He was already doing the prison time, he had nothing to lose by simply saying that he did it, and that he was sorry for what he did. Milgaard refused. In fact, he said that he felt it would be wrong in principle to take a parole. Even if it was offered to him, he said, he would refuse it. To accept parole; he'd condemn himself to a lifetime as a paroled rapist. He'd assume the guilt of a crime he did not commit.
I'm sure he had friends who pleaded with him, "C'mon, David .. just tell them you did it; you've got nothing to lose now ... just say you did it."
He would not. Milgaard wasn't appealing his conviction, or hoping for a new trial, or for new scientific methods that would prove his innocence. He had no way of knowing those things were in his future and he had no hope of either. David Milgaard had only one hope of early release from prison, and the resumption of a "normal" life, and that was to confess to a crime he did not commit. Ironically, his adamant refusal to confess to the crime for which he was convicted was considered proof that his "rehabilitation" wasn't complete. By refusing to admit to that crime, he knew he was dooming himself to life in prison. He refused to make that admission, not for personal advantage, but for a principle. Not because it benefited him personally, not because it was the safe choice, not because it was what "everyone else would do", but because it was right.
Cowardice asks the question - is it safe?
Expediency asks the question - is it politic?
Vanity asks the question - is it popular?
But conscience asks the question - is it right?
And there comes a time when one must take a
position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular;
but one must take it because it is right.
-- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
David Milgaard's story is exceptional because, in reality, most people judge their own actions based on how they were benefited personally, not on whether there was a principle involved or violated. Principles don't matter to most people. Not when it comes to making a living; business is business. Most of the people who read this can remember a time when they violated their principles for personal gain, and it probably happened at the workplace. In most cases, it was a very small thing. What did it really matter, anyway, right? By choosing to act morally in our personal lives, we don't change anything, do we? We are the only ones who pay a price for that; we only hurt ourselves. So, just go along. Play the game.
But here's the thing. If we don't live courageously and morally, every day, in small ways, in the mundane affairs of live; I can tell you this much: when courage really does matter, we won't do any different. That's just the way it is. Courage isn't demonstrated only in extraordinary moments or times of emergency. We can exhibit moral courage in small ways, and every day of our lives.
David Milgaard may have only discovered his courage when he made one monumental life-changing decision, but I know without doubt that he possessed it all along.
What would you have done if you'd faced David Milgaard's dilemma? Do you think you really know?