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Nelson Hart, charged with drowning his daughters, as a result of the Mr. Big investigative technique. (CP PHOTO/Tara Brautigam) CANADA (Tara Brautigam/CP)
Nelson Hart, charged with drowning his daughters, as a result of the Mr. Big investigative technique. (CP PHOTO/Tara Brautigam) CANADA (Tara Brautigam/CP)

Globe editorial

The Mr. Big investigative technique deserves death Add to ...

Some of Canada’s police officers have the narrative talents of screenwriters and directors, but their creativity has been horrendously misapplied to induce suspects to make false confessions to serious crimes, using a trick known as “Mr. Big.”

There is at least some hope that Mr. Big himself – or rather, itself – will be stopped. The Supreme Court of Canada recently heard an appeal from the Court of Appeal of Newfoundland and Labrador, in the case of Nelson Hart, and it will hear another such appeal, from Alberta, in the case of Dax Mack. And last week, an Ontario Superior Court judge excluded the evidence on which the Crown was relying in a similar case – a scenario complete with a fake but convincingly bloodstained corpse.

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The people targeted for the Mr. Big gambit are those that police believe to be guilty of a serious crime, such as homicide. Police have suspicions, but they lack evidence.

The Mr. Big technique serves to fill the gap, by inducing a confession. Police invent an imaginary criminal organization, led by a kingpin – Mr. Big. Over weeks and months, the fake gang draws the suspect in, first a friend, then as an errand-runner and eventually perhaps for some petty crime. The suspect-victim is pathetically grateful for his job and becomes devoted to the graciously condescending kingpin.

In due course, the supposed crime boss demands the ultimate proof of loyalty. This may come after Mr. Big and his undercover police henchmen have themselves staged what looks like a murder. To prove his loyalty, the suspect must confess that he too has committed a crime, perhaps even killed a certain person – the crime that the police are actually trying to solve. At first he denies it, but he is threatened with expulsion or worse. He may legitimately fear for his safety or his life. Eventually, he confesses to murder – and is then arrested. Thanks to his “confession,” he is often convicted.

The trapping of vulnerable people is scandalous. These confessions are extracted under fear, duress and entrapment, and have a high likelihood of being false. This may explain why the Mr. Big technique is not allowed in the United States.

It should be similarly banned in Canada. In the words of the Charter, it’s a practice that “brings the administration of justice into disrepute.” The Supreme Court should sentence Mr. Big to death.

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