Saturday, November 21, 2009

Eliciting wrongful convictions by Mr. Big lies - the Unger case

In 1992, Kyle Unger was convicted of the sexual assault and killing of 16-year-old Brigitte Grenier. The conviction was based on a confession elicited by means of a Mr Big operation, along with two pieces of corroborative evidence. The first was a hair (said to be consistent with Unger’s) found on the victim’s sweater. The other piece of inculpatory evidence came from a jailhouse informant whose evidence the crown later conceded would not be admissible.

"Mr. Big" sting operations entail the creation of a fictitious criminal organization that the suspect is inveigled into joining. The police devote considerable time, money, and energy into seducing the target to join their criminal gang. They develop a personal relationship with the target and slowly involve him in staged illegal activities on behalf of the organization. Various ruses and threats are used to show the target that there are benefits to joining the gang and negative consequences should he fall out of favour. The scheme usually terminates in an encounter with "the boss" (Mr. Big), an undercover operative posing as a senior member of the organization. He employs a range of inducements in an attempt to elicit a confession to the specific offence being investigated (usually murder). The degree of control exercised by the police over the target is considerable. The tactics are invasive and persistent, usually lasting for several months. In one instance, the sting involved 50 operatives.

Unger’s initial appeal to the Manitoba Court of Appeal following his conviction was rejected and leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada was denied. He spent the next 14 years in prison. In September 2004, a forensic evidence review committee called into question the hair comparison evidence used at the trial. DNA testing showed no trace of Unger on any of the exhibits and could not link him to the crime scene.

He was released on bail on November 24, 2005 pending ministerial review of his case. After innumerable delays, murder charges against him were dropped on October 23, 2009 after the Crown determined it didn't have enough evidence to retry him. Within hours of Unger’s acquittal, Manitoba Justice Minister Dave Chomiak announced that the province would not be offering any compensation for the wrongful conviction because it was Unger's confession that resulted in the conviction in the first place.

At his trial, Mr. Unger recanted his ‘confession’. He said that during the undercover operation, operatives had approached him with promises of gang membership, employment and the opportunity to earn a lot of money. At first, he denied having killed the victim, but after many days of being the beneficiary of the gang’s largesse, he confessed to the murder. He stated in court that he had simply been trying to ingratiate himself with them and that his sole motive for doing so was financial. At one point, he told one of the operative that he had killed his victim near a bridge. He took the operative to the bridge to show him the location. The bridge identified as the murder site had not even been built until several months after the killing had taken place. In the course of eliciting the ‘confession’, RCMP Corporal Forbes (a member of the undercover team) told Unger that if he had killed somebody “. . . that was fine … excellent. … That’s the kind of person I’m looking for.”

Soon after the announcement of his acquittal, Unger was asked by a reporter why he had confessed to a murder he had not committed. He replied that “when you’re young, naive and desperate for money, they hold a lot of promises to you, so you say and do what you have to do to survive…”.

While it is indisputable that Mr. Big operations have been successful in apprehending genuine killers who would otherwise have escaped unscathed, a tactic that is capable of both exposing the guilty and ensnaring the innocent needs to be used very carefully.In the contrived fantasy world created by the RCMP undercover operatives, an innocent suspect may have more reasons to confess falsely than he does to maintain his innocence. Without any independent corroborative evidence, it is not easy to distinguish true confessions from false ones. Many targets of Mr. Big operations have produced confessions that appear to do little more than assert responsibility for the target crime. Such ‘confessions’ may be all that is required to support a conviction.

[LEAP NOTE: Professor Moore recently published a commentary on the Mr. Big strategy:
"The Trouble with Mr. Big" in the Ottawa Citizen].

Posted by Professor Timothy E. Moore
Department of Psychology, Glendon College (York University)

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