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David Milgaard, who was wrongfully convicted for the rape and murder of nursing assistant Gail Miller, at his home in Cochrane, Alta., on May 22, 2019. Mr. Milgaard has died. He was 69.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Justice advocate David Milgaard, who spent 23 years in prison for a 1969 murder he didn’t commit in one of Canada’s most egregious wrongful convictions, died in a Calgary hospital early Sunday morning. He was 69.

Mr. Milgaard, who became a passionate defender of the wrongfully convicted, was admitted to hospital on Saturday after he fell ill. His sister, Susan Milgaard, confirmed that he died early Sunday morning of pneumonia, and that he did not have COVID-19. His family declined to comment further.

By using his name to keep wrongful convictions in the public eye, Mr. Milgaard “really advanced the cause of justice in this country,” said Ron Dalton, president of Innocence Canada. “He really moved the needle, he made a difference.”

In May, 1969, Mr. Milgaard was arrested at the age of 16 for the homicide of nursing assistant Gail Miller, who was sexually assaulted and killed on her way to work in Saskatoon and left in a snowbank. At the time, Mr. Milgaard was a free-spirited hippie who had been travelling through the city with friends. He was convicted of the crime in 1970, at the age of 17, but he maintained that he was innocent.

It wasn’t until 1992, after his mother, Joyce Milgaard, spent decades working relentlessly to win his freedom, that he was released from prison on parole. New evidence she assembled pointed to a different suspect – serial rapist Larry Fisher, who was renting a basement apartment from one of Mr. Milgaard’s friends when the homicide was committed in 1969.

Subsequent DNA tests formally exonerated Mr. Milgaard in 1997 and proved that Mr. Fisher killed Ms. Miller.

After his release from prison, Mr. Milgaard became a determined supporter of other wrongfully convicted people, even though he found it intensely difficult to revisit his own experiences. At speaking events, he was known to warn audiences that if such an injustice could happen to him, it could just as easily happen to them.

He felt compelled to try to reverse other wrongful convictions, and to push for changes to aspects of the justice system that made it vulnerable to harmful errors. And he was animated by a maxim that he said his mother taught him: “You can’t do nothing, when you can do something.”

“Gradually, over time, that became his preoccupation,” said David Asper, a lawyer who worked to secure Mr. Milgaard’s 1992 release. “This was what drove him: He said this should never happen to anybody else.”

One of the changes he believed was needed most was to create an independent commission to review wrongful-conviction applications. Former justice minister Irwin Cotler said Mr. Milgaard had a major impact on his decision as minister to recommend that such a panel be established, and though it has not yet been created, Mr. Cotler is hopeful the Trudeau government will do so.

“His legacy is that he shone a looking glass on wrongful convictions, on injustice in the criminal-justice system, and in that looking glass, he described really the inhumanity of wrongful convictions, the suffering even after you’re released,” said Mr. Cotler, who was justice minister from 2003 to 2006.

Mr. Milgaard’s lobbying as part of a five-person group, including Mr. Dalton and lawyer James Lockyer, helped spur federal consultations last fall, which culminated in a report submitted to Justice Minister David Lametti in November.

Mr. Lockyer, who worked closely with Mr. Milgaard, including on the effort to prove his innocence with DNA testing, said in an interview that he hopes “the legacy for David’s death is we set up that commission, we set it up now. I’m going to be pushing the minister to do that. Let’s have a testament to David’s death.”

In a statement, Mr. Lametti said: “David Milgaard was a tireless advocate for the wrongfully convicted, who desired to see the system change after being wrongfully convicted himself. I am deeply saddened to know that he will not live to see this happen. May we continue this incredibly important work in his memory.”

Mr. Lockyer learned of Mr. Milgaard’s death on Sunday, just after Mr. Lockyer finished a visit at a prison in New Westminster, B.C., with Nerissa Quewezance, who was convicted with her older sister Odelia of a 1994 murder. Mr. Lockyer and other advocates are working to overturn the Quewezances’s convictions in that case, which Mr. Milgaard referred to him. “He did it all the time,” Mr. Lockyer said. “It’s a testament to him that I’m here.”

“He was a man with a massive heart,” Mr. Lockyer added. “He didn’t talk much about his own case, his own experiences. … He preferred to talk about how his own experiences, which he wouldn’t describe, could be used to improve our society and improve the lives of people.”

Though Mr. Milgaard lived with anger and frustration over what happened to him, he maintained a bit of that joie de vivre in him” that he had before his arrest, said Mr. Dalton of Innocence Canada. When the two men went on a retreat near Algonquin Park a few years ago, Mr. Milgaard jumped out of the van as soon as they arrived at a rented log cabin, ran down to a dock jutting out into a lake and jumped into the water, “clothes and all,” Mr. Dalton said. “He had a bit of a child-like quality about him.”

On June 8, Mr. Milgaard and Mr. Asper were scheduled to receive honorary degrees from the University of Manitoba together, recognizing their work more than 50 years after Mr. Milgaard was wrongfully jailed.

“Through the worst thing that life can throw at you, through it all, he maintained a good soul, a good heart, and displayed a level of fortitude that inspires me,” Mr. Asper said.

With a report from Michelle Carbert in Ottawa.

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