A police technique that has netted hundreds of convictions in serious cases has been cast into doubt after Newfoundland's highest court said it can easily coerce false confessions from innocent people.
The controversial gambit – known as the Mr. Big technique – involves police posing as underworld kingpins to persuade crime suspects to admit their crimes as a gesture of good faith and commitment to a gang.
The ruse is typically revealed and the suspect is arrested after he has been surreptitiously videotaped making his confession to the head of the gang – Mr. Big.
This week, a 2-1 majority of the Newfoundland Court of Appeal reversed Nelson Lloyd Hart's murder conviction in the deaths of his two daughters on the basis that Mr. Hart could not realistically have refused a demand to confess from Mr. Big.
It said that fear of losing the life of luxury and warm comradeship to which undercover RCMP officers had introduced Mr. Hart during the sting operation would have induced him to say just about anything.
"Rejecting Mr. Big was impossible, given Mr. Hart's circumstances," the majority said. The court said that public faith in the justice system will be undermined should it come to light in future that targets of other Mr. Big prosecutions were wrongly convicted.
Toronto defence counsel Peter Copeland, an expert on the Mr. Big phenomenon, said the case will likely be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, where the ethics and effectiveness of the technique would come under full scrutiny for the first time.
Mr. Copeland said the case will be watched closely by police forces, who flocked to the strategy two decades ago after Supreme Court decisions eliminated many of the interrogation tricks they had traditionally used.
The effect of the Newfoundland decision is likely to extend into other areas of police procedure, since it effectively bars officers from tricking people who are particularly vulnerable to influence.
"This has huge implications for police techniques," said Halifax federal prosecutor David Schermbrucker. "The message to the police is that Mr. Big operations have to avoid exploiting the vulnerabilities of their target – whether it be an addiction such as gambling, or just social isolation as in Hart's case. Yet, usually that is precisely how these operations are developed."
Mr. Hart's daughters drowned in Gander Lake after falling off a pier in a remote area.
Police suspected Mr. Hart pushed them in based on the fact that he drove several miles for help rather than trying to save the children.
Mr. Hart, who has epilepsy, said that he blacked out at the scene, but did not initially tell that to police because he was afraid they would take away his driver's licence.
Police spent the next four months ensnaring the suspect in an elaborate fantasy world of fancy living, travel and warm social relationships that went well beyond anything Mr. Hart – a destitute individual with few friends – had experienced before.