Wade Skiffington is serving a life sentence for the shooting death of his wife almost 19 years ago. He has always maintained his innocence—except for the one time he confessed to murdering her to an undercover police officer.
The strategy devised by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to obtain that confession—known as a “Mr. Big” operation—is now under scrutiny by the Supreme Court of Canada. Known internationally as “the Canadian technique,” adopted by Australia and rejected by the United States, it can cost millions of dollars over a couple of years and involve as many as 50 undercover officers pretending to be part of a criminal organization. The officers gain a person’s trust with the promise of friendship and wealth, while instilling fear. Then, in a move that is meant to resemble an initiation, the organization’s head “Mr. Big” tells the person that he needs to know everything about his past, thereby eliciting a confession.
In the spring, Canada’s highest court decided it would adjudicate two cases on Dec. 3: one involving a Newfoundland man convicted of drowning his three-year-old twin daughters; the other, a man convicted of murdering his roommate in Alberta. It will be the first time the court will address whether a Mr. Big confession violates a person’s Charter right against self-incrimination, and how a judge must instruct a jury if the confession is admissible in court.
“There’s no denying that the legal landscape changed somewhat when the Supreme Court indicated an interest in Mr. Big confessions,” says Skiffington’s counsel, Gerald Chan, who has applied to the Supreme Court to hear his client’s case on the same day as the other two cases involving Mr. Big confessions. Skiffington was convicted in 2001.
On Thursday, the court will announce whether it will hear Skiffington’s case and, if it does, it will determine whether Mr. Big confessions are reliable. Hearsay evidence, such as confessions made to third parties, must be both necessary and reliable to be entered into a trial.
The Mr. Big technique, which has been used in more than 350 cases since the 1990s, has been criticized by lawyers and academics for obtaining false confessions that could lead to wrongful convictions, particularly from people who tend to be socially isolated and with limited economic means. In conjunction with monetary gifts and the offer of friendship, the target is induced, using fear, by witnessing violent, staged situations in which an undercover officer threatens another with murder, or even seems to commit murder behind closed doors.
In the book Mr. Big: Exposing Undercover Investigations in Canada, the largest academic study of the technique in Canada, author Kouri Keenan says that, out of the 93 accused people he examined, at least 29 “came from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.” He gives examples of RCMP targets who had barely enough to subsist on, which, Keenan argues, would have made it difficult for them to pass up the food, liquor and thousands of dollars proffered by the RCMP for minimal, but seemingly illegal, work, such as counting large sums of cash and delivering suspicious packages. The technique appears to differ from other police undercover operations, in that vast amounts of resources are used against one person with the goal of extracting a confession, and not just gathering evidence.
“The introduction of Mr. Big confessions at criminal trials isn’t our justice system’s proudest moment,” Steven Skurka, a criminal lawyer and prominent legal analyst, says. “Generally, the rule is that any confession that’s obtained from the police using coercion, intimidation or inducement is inadmissible, and the reason is that the statements given aren’t reliable. If they would be introduced, it would be a recipe for a wrongful conviction.”
(Mr. Big confessions have been allowed in prosecutions, because the person confessing does not perceive Mr. Big to be an authority figure who can affect legal outcomes.)
An RCMP spokesperson declined to comment on operational techniques and matters before the courts. On its website, the force says its objective in Mr. Big operations is learning “the truth.”
“Charges are always supported with corroborating physical evidence and/or compelling circumstantial evidence, in addition to any admission that may have been obtained through the undercover operation,” reads the website. “This technique is not only important in bringing criminals to justice, but often leads investigators to bodies of missing persons—bringing closure to families of victims. It can also be just as successful in clearing a person of interest as it is in convicting him.”
In Skiffington’s case, there was no physical or forensic evidence—such as gunshot residue, hair, fibres, blood or fingerprints—linking him to his wife’s 1994 killing, according to court documents. Skiffington, 47, a carpet cleaner working for Sears at the time, also had a rock-solid alibi. Four independent clients established a timeline of his whereabouts throughout the day that placed him far from the apartment complex in Richmond, B.C., where his wife was shot six times.
“This really bears the hallmarks of a wrongful conviction, and it should never be too late to overturn that,” says Chan, his lawyer. “This case walks, talks and smells like a wrongful conviction, when you consider that the confession is the only piece of incriminating evidence—and when you consider that, before they launched into this Mr. Big scenario, they didn’t even have enough evidence to charge him.”
Neil MacKenzie, spokesman for the B.C. Crown prosecutor’s office, defended the conviction, saying the Crown goes through a “rigorous” process to approve charges, and an assertion of innocence alone is not enough to revisit a case.
“We have a responsibility to ensure that the result in a case is a just and appropriate one,” MacKenzie says. “If, after a conviction, a branch learns information that raises questions about the case, then we take the appropriate steps to review whether there is a basis for concern that a wrongful conviction may have occurred.”
The RCMP website boasts that more than 95 per cent of Mr. Big confessions that go to trial result in convictions. This is because of the persuasive nature of a confession, despite any evidence to the contrary, says Tim Moore, a psychology professor at Toronto’s York University.
“It’s very difficult to overcome the power of a confession, even if there’s no corroborating evidence, and even if the defendant doesn’t seem to know much about the crime that he’s confessing to,” Moore says. “It seems so counterintuitive to jurors that someone would falsely confess to something he didn’t do.”