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Credit: Toronto Police Service

It's early 2008, and police are zeroing in on a suspect in a 30-year-old cold case, the murder of a pregnant woman near Montreal.

Investigators set up an elaborate sting, known as a "Mr. Big" operation. They target the dead woman's ex-husband, Michel Laflamme. He confesses to the undercover officers. Two years later, as a result of the confession, he's found guilty in court. It's a happy ending, right?

Except that as of Tuesday, Mr. Laflamme is now a free man. The Quebec Court of Appeal has freed him, and reduced the police strategy that caught him to cinders.

The appellate panel's conclusion: The Mr. Big operation, which featured threats and staged violence, amounted to coercion. Mr. Laflamme's confession could not be accepted by the court.

The ruling follows a pair of judgments last year from the Supreme Court, which set limits on sting operations. Basically, confessions obtained in this fashion are inadmissible until prosecutors can establish the "probative value outweighs the prejudicial effect."

The latest ruling – Quebec's highest court takes a dim view of Mr. Big, having ordered a retrial in another recent case – should prompt police to drop the strategy. It's a faint hope, given the popularity of Mr. Big. The RCMP has apparently used him more than 350 times to bridge the gap between suspicion and evidence.

The costly undercover investigations involve convincing a suspect he or she is being recruited by a criminal gang, run by a fictitious kingpin, Mr. Big. The new member must earn the kingpin's trust by admitting to a serious crime, usually murder. The suspect may be offered monetary payoffs for complying, and be threatened with violence if he fails. It's a scandalous practice open to all sorts of abuses. However, Canadian investigators are partial to it as it usually gets the desired result: The conviction rate is 95 per cent.

But research suggests false confessions are involved in roughly a quarter of all wrongful convictions. The Mr. Big strategy is banned in the U.S., Britain and Germany, among other places.

Writing for the top court last year, Justice Michael Moldaver said, "Thought must be given to the kinds of police tactics we, as a society, are prepared to condone in pursuit of the truth."

Here's an answer: not Mr. Big.

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