Jul 25, 2019 in Case Studies

The Unjust Verdict against David Milgaard


Cases, when people are being accused falsely for crimes they know little or nothing about, are usually confounding and disgusting. It is usually ridiculous to the law fraternity to jump into conclusion especially when the evidence labeled against the suspect seems to perfectly coincide with his/her personality or activities. The murder of a 22-year-old nursing assistant, Gail Miller on January 31st, 1969 was a typical riddle which until 1997 did not get any fair hearing and just verdict. Instead of convicting the real perpetrator of the heinous act which also included rape, the police hurriedly suspected and convicted David Milgaard who by then was only 16 years old. This was so after it transpired in their thorough scrutiny that the suspect had been a troublesome boy since infancy. His parents and teachers were said to have considered him impulsive, as he always antagonized the authorities. In fact, he was discontinued from kindergarten because he was producing a negative influence on other pupils and by the age of thirteen he spent some time in a psychiatric center to establish whether he was a psychosis case on not. Even though, all these attributes can cause one to grow into a rogue, but do they offer substantive evidence that could link David to the unfortunate incident?  


A Summary of Milgaard’s Case

In the backstreet way of Saskatoon, the body of Gail Miller was discovered on the evening of 31st January, 1969 at around 6.45 P.M. The state of the body revealed that she had been stabbed twelve times to death and thereafter raped. This took place at the time when there were innumerable incidences of this kind in the area as the police reported. Therefore, they were very vigilant and could bring any character that looked suspicious to book. Coincidently, on that same evening David Milgaard had decided to tour Alberta, together with Ron Wilson and Nichol John, his longtime friends.  En route Saskatoon, David intended to stop over to pick up Shorty Cadrain, another friend of his, but they drove around undecided. Later, they stopped to aid someone who had been stuck in a snow bank, only to get stuck themselves. In the process, David Milgaard ripped off his pants; oblivious of his fate that the scene he was causing would be the first evidence against him. 

When they had finally reached Cadrain's home, David was obliged to change his pants immediately again led his friends to Alberta. In this same house of Cadrain lived Larry Fisher, who would eventually be convicted of this crime though the snare of evidence skipped him in the first instance at the expense of David. On return from their excursion, Cadrain heard the news of $2000 reward for anyone who would furnish the investigation department with information about Miller's death. The courageous Cadrain immediately went to the police to give a version of what transpired that night. In one of the statements that Cadrain raised, Milgaard had blood blemishes on his clothes and he also threw away a cosmetic case, believed to have belonged to a woman, out of his car on the way to Alberta. Cadrain also reiterated that while on the way Milgaard threatened to lynch Wilson and John claiming that they knew too much. When the other friends were also interrogated separately, they revealed the same. Obviously David Milgaard was implicated and the police went straight ahead to convict him beyond reasonable doubt especially after Nichol John had testified to have seen Milgaard stab Gail Miller with her bare eyes. This proved to the judges that indeed Milgaard was guilty of murder. 

Milgaard's trial began in January 1970, lasting for a period of two weeks. The funniest thing is that his friends later could not restate what they had alleged to be the evidence against Milgaard. Nichol John, for instance, told the court that she could not remember anything on that fateful morning. The court however treated her as a hostile witness and allowed the Crown to cross-examine her regarding all the statements she previously raised to the police. What completely fixed Milgaard was the evidence given by George Lapchuk, 18 and Craig Melnyk, 17 who both confessed hearing Milgaard admit killing Miller the time they were watching a newscast about her murder. They added that Milgaard even demonstrated the act. 

Attempts by Milgaard’s parents to appeal did not materialize as their son was sentenced for life by the Supreme Court of Canada. However, his mother, Joyce, relentlessly pursued the information leading to the real killer. In fact, she offered a $10 000 reward to anyone who would unveil the information she sought, which as she hoped, would lead to the exoneration of her son David. With the help of very astute lawyers, they jumpstarted fresh investigation into the death of Miller.  Larry Fisher who had previously been in prison for a series of cases on sexual assault was finally brought to book as much evidence gathered implicated him. It was also revealed that Fisher had also been living in Cadrain’s home at the time when the incident took place. As the conviction found Fisher guilty of the crime, David Milgaard was forthwith released. He later received $10 million in compensation for the 22 years he was obliged to spend in prison for a crime that he did not commit. 

Description of Lombroso’s Theory of Crime

Relevant to this case is the theory of crime which was advanced by Cesare Lombroso. He was an Italian physician who asserted that criminals were a distinct physical and biological type who could be identified through an observation of certain physical traits, such as asymmetric cranium, long lower jaw and other detectable conditions. According to Lombroso, these traits did not trigger criminal behavior in a criminal, but they revealed an inherent propensity to crime. He claimed that this inclination towards crime was due to atavism, which is a reversion to a more primitive state of human development. Lombroso asserted that people should aim to understand the mind of a criminal as a way of preventing crime. This could only be possible through studying, measuring and classifying criminals in the same way physicians did with the sick people by conducting bodily examinations. It is proven, according to Lombroso that bodily anomalies were a sign of danger, hence, an important consideration in the case of criminality. 

Seeking to distance himself from the Classical School of Penology, Lombroso paid much focus to the criminal other than the crime. Unlike his colleague Beccaria, who emphasized much on the free will of criminals and the need to consider all of them equal irrespective of their social standing, and hence on the necessity to apply proportionate punitive measures to the crimes committed, Lombroso still advocated that the retribution of criminals should be commensurate to the awfulness of the criminal himself but not entirely to the crime that is committed as such. He gave an example of one who commits a crime because of a momentary inundating passion, though has never demonstrated any social gravity. Such an individual had to be sentenced more pitilessly as compared to another individual who had portrayed tendencies of crime from a tender age or who was a habitual offender. This means that the threat that criminals posed to the society as well as the need to defend the society are the most perilous factors that law enforcers ought to consider when they commit individual’s sentence. 

However, Lombroso was not the only one who advanced the medico-biological explanation of crime. Barlow & Kauzlarich also noted that the studies of “moral insanity” and “homicidal monomania” might have been the predecessors of Lombroso's modern thought on criminology. Notably, before Lombroso's theory, the study about the criminal was a bit fragmented. Lombroso argued in his first research that crime was rooted in the multiple causes, which ranged from the psychological and biological organization of each individual to social factors such as education and urbanization. He consolidated innumerable data which analyzed skulls and all sorts of physical anomalies of criminals using both, living subjects and cadavers. In the former case, Lombroso reported each detail ranging from weight, height and strength to the shape of foreheads, ears, noses, and even feet. 

Along with comprehensive body measurements, Lombroso used tattoos of criminals, poetry and jargon for providing a portrait of a criminal. Psychologically, he described male lawbreakers as vindictive, vain and lazy, dominated by affinity for blood, and delighted in orgies as well. Lombroso also explored relationships between criminality and age, sex, marital status, diet, profession, and environment, where he concluded that while a small portion of criminality was brought about by social conditions, most of the criminals were constitutionalized to be that way. Therefore, Lombroso reiterated the influence of biological elements over environmental explanations.

How Lombroso’s Theory of Crime Fits and Applies to Milgaard’s Case

According to Lombroso’s description of how a criminal should look, it is very un-debatable that Fisher could fall a victim even before the real investigation could be made. This guy is said to have had a series of cases lined up for him and he was a common figure in prison over a number of crimes. Fisher’s wife described him as having been implicated in a case as an orgy and on the fateful day of Miller’s murder, Fisher is reported to have vanished from home with a flaking knife. Even though, the wife made an attempt to report the incident to the police, they seeming regarded her sentiments as immaterial in the case. 

Furthermore, had the judges considered Lombroso’s suggestion regarding the proportionality of the sentence with the gravity of the criminal, perhaps Milgaard’s sentence could not have been as dire as they had fixed it. This is because according to description of Milgaards physical and even psychological elements, he does not seem to be dangerous to deserve a punishment of such magnitude. Although his past was disfigured with a number of mischievous practices, it could be typical of hyperactive children who later grow to become sanguine. It can be attributed to his inborn character and personality that made his friends to be suspicious of him even before they could investigate to substantiate their doubts about him. Furthermore, it could not have been possible that a real murderer could easily admit committing the act sarcastically the way Milgaard did. He was only a joker whose intrigues had not been well understood by his accolades and therefore Fisher took advantage to his own convenience.  


The case of David Milgaard is just one out of numerous similar cases of inmates who unjustly languish in sentences which they have no real words to describe. It shows how the judiciary systems are marred with anomalies that often cause untold tribulations to otherwise innocent people as the actual perpetrators go scot-free. The worst thing is that David’s friends who could have been relied on for authentic evidence, ended up fabricating lies to fix him. It is awkward to imagine that Milgaard’s life was spent fruitlessly in jail when he could have actually been resourceful not just to himself but to the community as well. Although he would later be compensated for erroneous conviction that is not an advantage compared to the full life he could have lived and to the contributions he could have made.


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