CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 17. . . .January 4, 2013
Although crimes are often mentioned in the news, what is represented less frequently are the people behind those crimes and the injustices that have occurred as a result of incorrect prosecutions in the justice system. A recent series for middle and high school students called “Real Justice” explores some of these true stories in which young people in Canada have been wrongly convicted for murder and have been exonerated subsequently. As part of this series, Cynthia J. Faryon’s book, Real Justice: Sentenced to Life at Seventeen - The Story of David Milgaard, focuses on a specific murder case in Canada and the severe miscarriage of justice against a youth for a murder that he did not commit. The case concerns David Milgaard, a 17-year-old who had gotten into trouble, such that he had become an easy target for police to identify him as the murderer of the nursing assistant Gail Miller.
Told from David Milgaard’s perspective, the book will draw readers in with its engaging and easy-to-read narrative. Generally straightforward and “plot”-driven, the story also provides a limited exploration of the psychological effects of being imprisoned on both David Milgaard and his family, the latter who fought tirelessly for justice for their son. Faryon draws readers into the book with her crisp and engaging dramatization of the crime, David Milgaard’s arrest, the subsequent investigation that led to his prosecution and the court case, and the injustice that he endured for over twenty years until his release in 1992.
Faryon’s effective dramatization of Milgaard’s thoughts and feelings contributes to her sympathetic portrayal of him. His despair and anger at being wrongfully convicted are further exacerbated by his realization that his so-called friends are willing to save themselves at the expense of framing him for the murder. As time passes, Milgaard develops depression and grows increasingly pessimistic that he will be absolved of the murder, yet his family members are unwavering in their support and work continuously to get his case reopened. Faryon’s depiction of Milgaard is further enhanced by narrative aspects, such as her descriptions of the prison conditions that he has endured, the injustice that has occurred when the initial investigation and court hearing led to incorrect conclusions, as well as his being shot by a policeman when he is unarmed. The book also has some photos of Milgaard and his family, photos which will further draw readers’ attention and evoke their sympathy by humanizing him and his family.
Although Milgaard is freed eventually, that freedom has come about with a huge financial and personal cost to him and his family. Due to the years lost in prison, Milgaard has missed the opportunity to grow up and to experience life as a normal young person, none of which can be returned to him. The narrative concludes with an epilogue that updates readers on where David Milgaard, his parents, and other people associated with the case are now. In a sense, this brings some closure to the case. At the same time, the epilogue makes the narrative open-ended and evokes the impression that the lives of these people have continued beyond the physical boundaries of the book. The epilogue’s final words are dedicated to preserving the memory of Gail Miller, thereby affirming that she is as much a part of the story as David Milgaard.
One potential problem with this book is the way in which its cover represents the narrative. The cover sensationalises the depiction of crime in the media with its title, caption, and photograph of David Milgaard. Beneath the photo of David Milgaaard, the caption states, “My name is David . . . and I was an innocent 17-year-old who served 23 years of my life in a federal penitentiary.” Coupled with the book’s title, this representation of the book’s topic may work against the very goals that the book hopes to fulfill, which is to uncover and humanize the person behind the crime and raise awareness of the injustice that can occur when complex cases are seemingly made clear-cut. Younger readers may already have a certain impression of crime stories that are represented in the mainstream media. As a result, the book’s cover does not diminish those preconceived perceptions of crime and, instead, may, in fact, serve to reinforce those very impressions that its story works to dismantle.
Despite this shortcoming, the book is still valuable for its sympathetic portrayal and critique of injustice from the perspective of one person’s case. Appropriate for school and public libraries, this book can be designated as an easy reader because it contains vocabulary that would be suitable for various levels of reading ability within the targeted age group. Similarly, the book’s language is appropriate for the age group, and it is organized into short, highly readable chapters. Where teachers or parents may be particularly helpful is to assist in comprehending certain elements of the book, such as its references to Canada’s justice system, specific legal terminology, and historical figures, such as the former federal Minister of Justice Kim Campbell.
This book has other valuable features that provide further context and additional resources for David Milgaard’s case. These include a timeline that tracks the progression of events from the first rape victim on October 21, 1968, until September 26, 2008, when an 800-page report was released on the public inquiry that had reopened David Milgaard’s case. A “Further Reading” section contains a variety of resources that readers can explore to learn more about David Milgaard’s case. The back of the book has a glossary which defines terms such as “crown attorney,” “acquittal,” and “DNA”, and this feature will be helpful, especially for younger readers. In addition, readers can use the book’s index to look up and cross-reference certain events, individuals, or other facts quickly. The beginning of the book provides further context by noting that the author has used quoted dialogue whenever possible. This is followed by a foreword written by the Director of Client Services from The Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC), which provides some background to the reopening of David Milgaard’s case and how he was subsequently exonerated in 1997. All of these additional features in the book enhance its value as a teaching and learning tool by extending readers’ understanding of the Milgaard case beyond the book and encouraging them to explore other issues further. For example, readers may wish to learn more about Canada’s justice system and other cases involving wrongfully convicted people.
Cynthia J. Faryon has worked as a legal assistant and teen counselor prior to becoming an author and freelance writer. She has published magazine articles, travel reviews, as well as 11 books. Further information about her is available from her biography on The Writers’ Union of Canada website. For more details about James Lorimer’s “Real Justice” series, readers can visit the publisher’s website.
Huai-Yang Lim, who has a degree in Library and Information Studies, enjoys reviewing, reading, and writing children’s and YA literature in his spare time in Edmonton, AB.
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