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Killer Larry Fisher met his match at Supreme Court in David Milgaard case

06/11/2015 12:00 EDT | Updated 06/11/2016 05:59 EDT
Alan Habbick covered the Supreme Court hearing into the David Milgaard case for CBC News in 1992. Larry Fisher, the man ultimately found guilty of the murder involved, died in prison Tuesday. Portions of this article appeared previously on CBCNews.ca.

If you're fortunate as a journalist, there are moments you simply will never forget, because what you witnessed was just so extraordinary.

For me, one of those moments will always be connected to Larry Fisher — the convicted murderer and rapist who died Tuesday in a prison in B.C. — and the day more than 20 years ago when he appeared before Canada's highest court.

It was 1992. Fisher had been called before the Supreme Court of Canada while it was holding an unusual hearing into the case of David Milgaard.

Milgaard was only a teenager when he was convicted of the 1969 murder of nursing student Gail Miller, who had been found stabbed to death in a Saskatoon snowbank.

The local police — hungry for a conviction — became convinced that Milgaard, a long-haired youth who had dabbled in drugs and petty theft, had committed the murder.

Milgaard's situation wasn't helped when some of his friends changed their stories after questioning. One, seemingly tantalized by reward money, told police he saw Milgaard with "blood on his shirt" on the day of the murder.

Milgaard languished behind bars for years until people started asking questions about the weakness of the case against him and the strength of the evidence linking another man, Larry Fisher, to the killing.

Fisher had committed a series of rapes in the same neighbourhood where Gail Miller had been killed, although from prison he strenuously denied having anything to do with her murder.

Finally, in late 1991 and after years of pressure and publicity, the federal government referred the whole Milgaard matter to Canada's highest court.

At that time, I was a television reporter for CBC Winnipeg. I was sent to Ottawa, because I had regularly followed the twists and turns in the saga.

I wondered then, and I still wonder, what the justices of the Supreme Court really thought when the Milgaard case, with its rogues gallery of characters, was dropped on to their calendar.

The judges gamely dug into the details of Miller's murder, listening to the often contradictory and fuzzy recollections of Milgaard's acquaintances.

All of us who had covered the case for any length of time knew the main event was going to be the appearance of Larry Fisher.

And on March 12, 1992, we weren't disappointed.

Fisher took his place in a specially constructed witness box in the centre of the main courtroom.

Hersh Wolch, Milgaard's long-time principal lawyer, conducted the cross-examination.

At first, Fisher was wary as Wolch worked his way through what seemed like a laundry list of details. When did Fisher take the bus each day? Did he spot his victims during the ride? Did he experiment with LSD and marijuana?

It was far from clear where Wolch was going with all of this, but after more than half an hour of minute detail, he zeroed in.

Delicately, methodically, Wolch began to lead Fisher through the crimes he had committed and to admit to his "pattern."

'Quite successful'

"You had a problem, you knew what you were going to do, and you didn't want to get caught," said Wolch.

"That's true," Fisher replied.

"And what you did, for the most part, was quite carefully thought out, and quite successful."

"Of course."

Wolch continued to press, and Fisher, warming to the attention, even began to correct Wolch on the details.

"In your pattern, sir, what you do is you grab the lady from behind and you put the knife to her throat, cover her mouth so she can't yell, and drag or force her into the alley, lane, whatever it might be. That is your pattern."

"From the side, sir," Fisher corrected.

"From the side?"

Removed clothing

"Yes, sir."

It was riveting to watch them go back and forth, as Fisher admitted that most, if not all, of his attacks had happened in the dark, with knives, when the victim was alone.

Fisher told Wolch he had forced his victims to remove all of their clothing, in part so he could use a blouse or sweater to cover the woman's face.

"Because if the party can identify you, or if the party can see you, you may be forced to seriously harm them. Isn't that right?" Wolch asked.

"Yes, sir."

Wolch continued in a low-key, reassuring tone, drawing Fisher out.

Then, suddenly more forceful, Wolch stunned the courtroom by flipping the storyline on its head.

"I am going to suggest to you, sir, that Gail Miller and you took the bus together. You knew who she was.… You were in the alley on Avenue O and grabbed her and took her in the lane, the same way you've done numerous, numerous times. Correct?"

"Wrong," Fisher replied.

"It does fit your pattern, though, doesn't it?"

"No sir. … I did not commit this crime."

Damage had been done

For the next few minutes, in a series of questions that hit Fisher like body blows, Wolch connected the dots, showing how Miller's murder matched Fisher's rapes, detail for detail.

Nine times Fisher said "false" or "wrong" to Wolch's questions.

Three times he said, "I did not commit this crime." But the damage had been done.

Wolch had shown the judges reasonable doubt about Milgaard's guilt.

As he closed, Wolch squeezed one last admission from the rapist.

"Mr. Fisher, you do agree with me, though, that in the description that we have gone through regarding the killing of Gail Miller, there is nothing in there that you haven't done somewhere else before."

"That's true," Fisher said.

It took another month for the Supreme Court justices to rule on the Milgaard case. While they were not completely convinced of Milgaard's innocence, it was clear that Fisher's testimony had played an important part in their deliberations.

Case against Milgaard stayed

"The fresh evidence presented to us, particularly as to the locations and the pattern of the sexual assaults committed by Fisher, could well affect a jury's assessment of the guilt or innocence of Milgaard," they wrote.

The case against Milgaard was stayed.

Five years after that hearing, new DNA evidence conclusively proved that Milgaard was innocent of Miller's murder, and at the same time linked Fisher to the crime.

Two years after that, in 1999, a jury found Fisher guilty of Miller's murder and put him behind bars for the rest of his life.

Hersh Wolch, interviewed by Canadian Press about Fisher's death said, "My impression was that he was pure evil."

Wolch should know. He faced Fisher in that moment at the Supreme Court — almost forgotten now, but still vivid in my mind's eye.

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