Mr. Big: Controversial police technique still used, despite Supreme Court limits

·Crime Contributor
Mr. Big: Controversial police technique still used, despite Supreme Court limits

Months after a Supreme Court of Canada ruling placed restrictions on the use of Mr. Big operations, cases relying on the controversial complex stings are continuing to wend their way through the courts.

Others, whose cases resulted in convictions, are hoping the Supreme Court’s decision will mean their cases get tossed out or at least appealed.

Mr. Big operations are used by police to obtain confessions or other evidence as undercover police officers who pose as criminals and offer things to induce information.

Critics – and there are many – say the nature of the stings can lead to false confessions from people who want to impress Mr. Big or earn money or other incentives offered by undercover operations.

Last summer, the Supreme Court ruling on the Hart case from Newfoundland set the stage for new rules governing the stings. While it did not prevent their use, it did impose limits on when and how they could be used as confessions during stings can be unreliable.

An analysis following the ruling said the decision was an attempt to curtail the abuse of police power in coercing unreliable confessions.

Yahoo Canada News asked the RCMP to explain how those rules have affected Mr. Big stings, as they have been used in numerous cases over the years. They did not provide a statement.

In B.C. right now, a court is hearing the case of Bradley Ryan Streiling, who became the target of a Mr. Big major crime undercover operation in November 2012 — about 4-1/2 years after the death of a child he is accused of killing.

Streiling, 30, is charged with the second-degree murder of Noah Cownden. The toddler died of head injuries on April 9, 2008. At the time, Streiling was living with Noah’s mother.

Also from B.C., just two weeks ago, the Supreme Court told the British Columbia Court of Appeal to take another look at a murder case that involved a so-called Mr. Big sting by police, the Canadian Press reported at the time.

The justices said the appeal court should reconsider the case of Gary Donald Johnston in light of last year’s decision about stings in which undercover investigators involve suspects in phoney crimes.

Another case that is among the best known in Canada involved Atif Rafay and Sebastien Burns, who were the target of the controversial Mr.Big technique.

Rafay and Burns confessed to killing Rafay’s family in Washington state to what they believed was a criminal gang paying them to make illegal bank deposits. Both are in prison.

Their case has been supported by Innocence International, the organization conceived by American-Canadian boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter to help free wrongly convicted prisoners worldwide.

A new appeal for the Rafay-Burns case was filed October 2014 and is now being processed.

Ken Klonsky, who became the director of Innocence International after Carter’s death, said Burns/Rafay is the final case for the organization, although its name will live on through Tufts University.

In an email interview with Yahoo Canada News, Klonsky said the Mr. Big technique is fraught with problems.

“What I’d say about Mr. Big is that its effectiveness is outweighed by the inherent danger posed when using it on youth or on mentally challenged people,” he wrote.

“In fact, it’s dangerous when used on anyone and, in our opinion, it should have been abolished.“

Klonsky explores the Mr Big technique on his website. Klonsky, who co-authored Carter’s Eye of the Hurricane, said stings are used when there is a lack of physical evidence or witnesses.

“Unless evidence can be gathered scientifically, any case is in question. Evidence should not have to come from a person witnessing against himself,” he told Yahoo Canada News.

Earlier this year, Rafay told the CBC program The Fifth Estate he felt “extremely” threatened during the undercover operation and attacked the Mr. Big process, saying it "essentially makes you try to be as plausible as you can in your false confession, and that plausibility is what convinces a juror or someone else that ‘Oh, it must be true’…despite all the countervailing evidence."

Another Canadian case that cast doubts upon Mr. Big stings was the Manitoba murder of Brigitte Grenier, 16.

On a summer night in 1990, teenage friends Kyle Unger and Timothy Houlahan attended a music festival and party near Roseisle, Man. Grenier was also there and was seen dancing with Houlahan.

The next day, Grenier was was found dead after being brutally attacked. Within days, Unger was charged with her murder, but he was let go due to a lack of evidence. RCMP were convinced he was guilty and used a Mr. Big trap and offered money and criminal work.

Unger ended up falsely confessing to the murder in order to impress them. He and Houlahan were sent to trial, which this reporter covered in Winnipeg for the Canadian Press. Much of the trial focused on the undercover operation.

Unger was released after the efforts of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC). Unger spent 14 years in prison for his wrongful conviction.

In Houlahan’s case, a new trial was ordered, but he killed himself before the case began.

The practice of Mr. Big stings has resulted in numerous studies and books about the practice, but it remains a usable technique for investigators. A book Mr. Big released in 2010 by Joan Brockman and Kouri T. Keenan surveyed about 80 cases that used the technique.

The authors argued the procedure “encourages a police culture of violence and convictions rather than justice and suggest that this practice must be drastically curtailed if we are to have a legal system that is focused on the pursuit of justice.”

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