By: ALISON SANDSTROM
“It’s time for me to wake you all up,” David Milgaard told the crowd. “This could happen to you, or your children.”
Over 400 people crammed into Carleton’s largest lecture hall, some forced to sit on the floor or stairs, to hear Milgaard speak at the Annual Wrongful Conviction Event on Feb. 1.
In 1970, at 17 year-old Milgaard was wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of Gail Miller in Saskatoon. He spent the next 23 years of his life in prison. DNA evidence eventually identified Miller’s real killer as Larry Fischer. The Saskatchewan government paid Milgaard $10 million in compensation.
“Having him here is too good to be true for us,” said Kelly Lauzon, a graduate student in Carleton’s law department and the president and co-founder of Wrongful Conviction and Injustice Association of Carleton, which organized the event.
“The things this man has endured and the fact he’s not this angry, bitter, disgruntled person. He’s very fun loving, sees the good in everybody and does a lot of work for social justice and humanitarian causes,” she says.
Soft spoken, Milgaard thanked the audience repeatedly for listening to his story and for caring about the wrongfully convicted. He talked about the failings of Canada’s retributive justice system and prisons and advocated for restorative justice.
“Restorative justice breaks the cycle of harm, providing opportunity to victims, prisoners and community in a way to resolve social causes of crime. It shows love and kindness and offers hope to all,” said Milgaard.
Carleton professor Darryl Davies taught Milgaard sociology while he was serving his life sentence in a Saskatchewan penitentiary. Davies encouraged his sociology and criminology students to attend the wrongful convictions event as part of their education.
“People need to be aware of the fact that the criminal justice system is screwed up. We’ve had far too many cases of wrongful conviction,” said Davies. “I mean the system is there to function for itself and justice gets lost somewhere between what happens on the street and what happens to the person in court.”
Also in the audience at the event was Romeo Phillion. In 2009, Phillion became the longest serving inmate in Canadian history to have a murder conviction overturned. He served 31 years in prison for the murder of Ottawa firefighter, Leopold Roy. He has never received any form of compensation or an apology from those he says deliberately buried his alibi.
In 2012 Phillion launched a $14 million lawsuit against the Ottawa Police Service Board, two police detectives, and Ontario’s Attorney General. At 74 years-old, Phillion is battling lung disease and emphysema. He can no longer walk and uses oxygen tank when he’s at home.
Phillion said he was happy many law and police students came to hear Milgaard speak.
“I want to let them know, you’re the next generation,” said Phillion. “Don’t become a cop for the gun and the badge like they do today. Don’t have a wrongful conviction under your belt, that’s the worst thing a cop can have.”