A researcher on the “Mr. Big” investigative technique says the recent court decision to drop murder charges against Kyle Unger poses “serious ramifications” for the commonly used police tactic.
In a Mr. Big scenario, undercover police officers adopt fictitious criminal persona. Posing as organized crime figures, they deceive the suspect into believing that he or she is being welcomed into an intricate and highly successful crime syndicate, which falls under the direction of Mr. Big, the gang boss.
Trust builds up over time as undercover police involve the target in staged criminal activities. Targets often receive generous compensation for relatively little work. Eventually the target gets to meet Mr. Big, who expresses concern about the target’s criminal past which could jeopardize the integrity or the existence of the organization.
The target is shown an “official” police document with some information indicating he is the focus of a serious criminal investigation, usually a murder investigation. Mr. Big promises to help make the problem go away, while the target is promised money, protection, and membership in the gang. Somewhere along the line a confession is elicited from the target.
Unger was convicted after a Mr. Big sting in which undercover police officers masquerading as criminals tricked him into confessing the crime to a fake mob boss.
After serving 14 years in prison for the murder of 16-year-old Brigitte Grenier, Unger left a Winnipeg courtroom on Oct. 23 with his freedom and name fully restored. He was released from jail last March after DNA cast doubt on his guilt.
"Mr. Unger’s acquittal reinforces the notion that no criminal prosecution should proceed on the basis of a suspect’s uncorroborated self-incriminating statement alone,” says Kouri Keenan, a Simon Fraser University criminology graduate student who has written a thesis on the use of Mr. Big sting operations in Canada.
During Unger’s trial the prosecution’s case hinged on his confession, testimony from a jailhouse informant, and hair fibre evidence consistent with Unger found on Grenier’s sweatshirt.
But DNA analysis excluded Unger as a source of the hair. Later, information provided by the jailhouse informant was discredited and withdrawn by the Crown, leaving only the confession implicating Unger in the murder.
“Mr. Unger’s acquittal definitely raises serious questions about the technique, particularly in situations where the confession is the linchpin in the crown’s case,” says Keenan.
Keenan says Unger was broke and “would have done anything and said anything to please Mr. Big” because his acceptance into the organization was contingent on him talking about his past criminal exploits.
“At the time of his criminal investigation Mr. Unger was young, naïve, and desperate for money. So basically the police played on his socio-economic vulnerabilities. This case highlights the economic and socially vulnerable positions that a lot of these targets are in at the time they are under investigation.”
Police maintain the controversial method, which was developed by the RCMP in British Columbia in the late 1980s, gets results and is an effective way to crack cases. Critics say the technique amounts to entrapment and that Mr. Big confessions are unreliable and prejudicial.
In one famous case, Shawn Hennessey and Dennis Cheeseman are serving lengthy prison sentences after confessing to Mr. Big operatives to the murder of four police officers in Mayerthorpe, Alberta.
Having reviewed 76 cases, Keenan believes all confessions obtained through the Mr. Big technique should be reviewed by a false confessions expert, especially in circumstances where the confession to undercover police is not corroborated by other independent, reliable evidence.
Research has shown that false confessions by innocent individuals are “a regular occurrence,” he says, and will likely continue until police and other criminal justice officials develop a better understanding of the pitfalls of non-custodial interrogation practices and establish safeguards to prevent their misuse.
“You have to give credit to the police for trying to solve these cases that have basically reached an impasse, but the opportunity, or the prospect of eliciting a false confession, is great in these types of situations.”
As a result of the Unger decision, Keenan adds, “we can expect to see an influx of appeals and additional applications for ministerial review—frivolous or not.”