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Clayton George Mentuck denied 16 times to undercover officers that he battered 14-year-old Amanda Cook to death in 1996, deep in the brush outside a rural Manitoba county fair.

But Mr. Mentuck also confessed five times to the killing -- a gruesome event that ended when a 40-kilogram (83-pound) rock was dropped on the teenager's head on July 13, 1996.

Which version is true?

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Mr. Justice Alan MacInnes of the Court of Queen's Bench certainly had no doubt recently, when he acquitted Mr. Mentuck of the killing. He expressed deep concerns about the adequacy of the RCMP and the evidence they assembled.

Judge MacInnes pointed to a bizarre RCMP sting operation that tempted Mr. Mentuck with a mountain of inducements so enticing that the 22-year-old man confessed, despite his innocence.

"In this case, in my view, the level of inducement was overwhelming," Judge MacInnes ruled. "There was nothing but upside for him to admit, and nothing but downside for him to deny the offence."

However, a highly unusual gag order prohibiting journalists from describing the sting technique has left the public oblivious to how a confessed killer came to be set free.

Last February a Manitoba trial judge denied the Crown's request for a gag order on any details of the police sting technique. The prosecution appealed on an emergency basis and won the order it wanted from Mr. Justice Frank Iacobucci of the Supreme Court of Canada.

The ban has effectively shielded the RCMP from criticism while casting a dark shadow over Mr. Mentuck's acquittal, defence counsel Timothy Killeen said. "The public has heard all about his confessions, but none of the evidence about why he felt compelled to make false confessions," Mr. Killeen said in an interview.

"It has left a clear impression that Mr. Mentuck really did kill her, but was acquitted on some kind of technicality. We have a case where the justice system worked perfectly -- but the public ends up thinking the opposite."

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With the Mentuck trial, the ramifications of the news blackout have only begun. When they are heard in the Supreme Court next year, they promise to pose a major test of press freedom and police secrecy.

"There is a huge public interest in knowing how government operates vis-à-vis the citizen," said Jonathan Kroft, a lawyer fighting the ban on behalf of The Winnipeg Free Press and Thomson Newspapers Ltd. "If this ban becomes permanent, it will be a permanent impediment from knowing how the police operate."

Amanda's disappearance shocked the province. Her remains were found five days after she went missing, igniting intense pressure to solve the crime.

"Instead of the message [to police]being, 'Work as hard as you can,' the message became, 'Get somebody,' " Mr. Killeen said.

Upon learning that Mr. Mentuck may have spoken to Amanda at the fair near her home on the Waywayseecappo Reserve, the RCMP offered him up as a suspect. Nine months later, Mr. Mentuck was charged.

The evidence was startlingly thin. There were suspicions about him having left for a neighbouring reserve days after the slaying, and later hitchhiking to Vancouver.

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Mr. Mentuck also uttered a handful of odd comments about the case to friends and to a prison inmate.

(In his recent ruling, Judge MacInnes said they were either innocuous or meaningless exaggerations.)

In Mr. Mentuck's favour, there was no forensic evidence to link him to the dead girl. His behaviour had been normal in the hours after the killing, and his clothes were unstained by blood or filth despite the crime having been gory and in a muddy area.

"The point of this investigation was ultimately not to gather evidence to determine who did it, but to create evidence to show that he did it," Mr. Killeen observed.

Mr. Justice John Menzies of the Court of Queen's Bench abruptly stayed the murder charge in April of 1998, after Mr. Killeen revealed that a tape of Mr. Mentuck's police interrogation had been interfered with.

By comparing counter numbers, Mr. Killeen had discovered that 17 minutes of tape was unaccountably eliminated.

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An RCMP lab in Ottawa confirmed that the tape had been erased and rerecorded at several points.

Judge Menzies also ruled that the accused man's constitutional rights had been violated during his interrogation. Despite having asserted his right to silence 75 times, the RCMP had continued to question Mr. Mentuck.

A few months later, a convict told the police that Mr. Mentuck had confessed to him while he was in jail on a minor charge. They rearrested Mr. Mentuck on Sept. 21, 1998.

The RCMP then devised an elaborate undercover sting intended to bolster their case. While the publication ban cloaks their techniques in secrecy, it's clear their sting was intensive and involved some startling and sensational inducements.

After repeatedly denying to undercover officers that he was involved in the killing, Mr. Mentuck finally succumbed and said that he was responsible.

Yet, even then, he wrote on a scrap of paper after one confession: "What I'm about to say to this person is untrue. As I write this, I'm in confusion. What I say was said in confusion. I still think I'm inocent [sic] I did not kill Amanda Cook."

Early in the second trial, the Crown asked for a gag order to seal the identities of the RCMP officers and the techniques they had used in the sting. Judge Menzies allowed the first point, but refused the second.

Mr. Justice Iacobucci's interim gag order remains in effect until the appeal can be heard by the top court, probably next spring, if not further away.

Meanwhile, Mr. Mentuck's trial continued. Area reporters could only provide cryptic and often indecipherable references to testimony. The trial ended in a hung jury, necessitating yet another trial.

It began last September, with the gag order still in place.

Judge MacInnes condemned the confessions elicited through the jailhouse informants and the RCMP sting. He also expressed "great concern" about another suspect -- a man Amanda Cook noticed at the fair and told friends she liked. The man was clearly not Mr. Mentuck, Judge MacInnes said.

"At least equally tragic to the murder of Amanda Cook would be the wrongful conviction of one charged with her murder," he concluded.

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