Reasonable Doubt: Mr. Big on trial

The risks of false confessions and wrongful convictions are too great

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      Note to readers: Guest columnist Sherry Baxter practices criminal and civil law on Vancouver Island, as well as provides legal research and litigation services.

      When you think “undercover”, it conjures images of Hollywood dramas where police officers pose as criminals and infiltrate gangs to gather evidence against them. Many of the classics are based on true undercover stories.

      In Canada, however, the real life police approach to “undercover” has been turned inside out with what are known as “Mr. Big” operations. These are not the stereotypical Hollywood undercover scenarios. In a Mr. Big operation, the suspect is the only one not involved in the deception. He is the only one not aware that all of the “criminals” he is associating with are actually police officers. The operations cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each. The main characters include the “target”, the “primary operator”, and “Mr. Big”. The target is the suspect with whom the police are seeking to extract a confession. The primary operator is the officer who pursues the target and helps him “join” the gang. Mr. Big is the “boss”, and eventually interrogates the target about the crime, pressures the target to be “honest” about it, to confess, and to provide details. The assumed consequences of failing to follow through are usually devastating to the target.

      Mr. Big operations offer a troubling example of coercive techniques that guarantee false confessions. The country’s highest court, the Supreme Court of Canada, has put safeguards in place by requiring the police and prosecution to prove that a confession is likely reliable. That is, that the confession is probably reliable because corroborating evidence is present, or the confession is internally consistent. Despite these safeguards, Mr. Big operations pose too great a risk for wrongful convictions. Here’s why.

      The deceit is elaborate. Supporting officers act out scenarios that include violent beatings for dishonesty, or they accompany the target on fake gang “jobs” that include tasks like delivering packages or vehicles, counting money, and standing guard. The gang pays for extravagant expenses. The target is paid substantially well, up to tens of thousands of dollars in some cases, with the promise of more to come. One of the significant incentives to confessing to the crime is an assurance from the gang that they will help the target sue for damages because he was falsely imprisoned, a large portion of which he gets to keep.

      It bears emphasis that the one and only objective of the entire operation, which occurs over many months, is to secure a confession from the target for the crime they think he committed. The goal is not to investigate whether he did it, but to get him to confess to it. This is a very troubling premise, and is the result of tunnel vision, which has been proven to result in wrongful convictions. In doing so, they manipulate the target by making him believe the primary operator is in trouble with the boss for having recruited a liar if the target maintains innocence. They provide incentives such as money and camaraderie, a lavish lifestyle, and take advantage of any vulnerabilities the target may possess. There are also the subtle coercive tactics such as the threat of bodily harm.

      In one case, the target’s two daughters had drowned. The police suspected their father had murdered them but had no evidence against him. When they sought to recruit him, the father was unemployed and socially isolated. The gang offered social connections, and he came to view many of the undercover officers as “brothers”. The large sums of money they paid him helped alleviate his financial problems. In the end, the gang had lifted him from his troubles and gave him a sense of belonging. The operation took advantage of his vulnerabilities, his financial situation and his social isolation. It is of no surprise that when he was confronted by the boss about having drowned his daughters, and faced the risk of being kicked out of the gang, or worse, there was a significant risk he would have confessed to the crime even if he had not committed it.

      In another case, the target was recruited and later confronted by Mr. Big. He was told there was new science that proved he had murdered his girlfriend’s three-year-old son, who had suffered a fatal head injury. The target was told that the gang had observed the science first hand because they had “insiders” in the police. Mr. Big assured him he would be arrested, and guaranteed he would be convicted because of the “new science”, unless he confessed. If he did confess, he was told, the gang would arrange for someone else to take the blame.

      Another Mr. Big operation resulted in two men confessing to the same crime, when only one of them could have been responsible for it. One of the two confessions was clearly false. They were both tried for murder and both were convicted. In yet another case, the target had faced charges for the second degree murder of a 14 year old girl, but they had been stayed before trial. The police pursued him with a Mr. Big operation. When he was confronted by Mr. Big, he denied involvement. He was told the primary operator was in trouble with the boss for recruiting a liar. The target was assured that if he confessed, a man dying of cancer would take the blame and serve the jail sentence.

      Another troubling consequence of Mr. Big operations is the prejudice formed against the target because of the fact he was willing to commit crimes as part of a criminal organization. Even if his confession is not believed at trial, the accused faces the additional risk that he will be considered the type of person who would commit a crime, and is more likely to be wrongfully convicted. These risks associated with tunnel vision, false confessions, and as a consequence, wrongful convictions, provide compelling reasons why Mr. Big operations should not be used when investigating crimes.

      Reasonable Doubt appears on on Fridays. You can send your questions for the column to its writers at

      A word of caution: You should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer.




      Jul 31, 2015 at 2:15pm

      If you're not a criminal you probably won't commit a crime so I'm not too worried about these type of operations. In fact, I think they are obviously working pretty good. Keep up the good work.

      @ Yeah

      Jul 31, 2015 at 2:28pm

      I don't want innocent people to be convicted of crimes just because they are financially vulnerable or suffering mental illness. Surely there are other ways of identifying and convicting the truly guilty without creating innocent "fallout" like this. It's NOT "good work" if innocent people are being imprisoned, regardless of the good intentions of the officers involved. Your perspective is very narrow and betrays a disturbing lack of compassion.


      Jul 31, 2015 at 3:30pm

      These types of activities are a huge waste of police time and taxpayer money. Probably very fun and exciting to carry out, but that's not good enough. Operations should be "law enforcement" or "investigation", and these theatrical projects do not fit either of those categories.


      Jul 31, 2015 at 3:46pm

      I agree that the police should keep up the good work with the Mr Big operations. "...a disturbing lack of compassion."...seriously! I have all the compassion in the world for the innocent victims of any senseless crime, but I have no compassion for the criminals. Did Schoenberg have a good day today? Did he enjoy a good meal and work on his tan while he watched his favourite TV program? His children didn't. Remind me again who the "victims" are in violent crimes.

      @ eagle joe

      Aug 1, 2015 at 2:28am

      The comment by @ Yeah is not asking you to have compassion for criminals. Read it again, genius. You obviously see what you want to see and hear what you want to hear. Smug much?

      Barry William Teske

      Aug 1, 2015 at 10:59am

      Another dot in the map of Confrontational Politics taking our trusted hard earnt public institutions and souring them
      for the use of the elites.


      Aug 1, 2015 at 12:51pm

      @ @Yeah, Funny, I think putting criminals in jail is a great act of compassion for the real victims of crime. As for the criminals - well, screw them. You don't know jack about me man, but if putting criminals behind bars is a "narrow view", then I proudly stand by my opinions.

      @ Yeah re: @ @ Yeah

      Aug 1, 2015 at 2:16pm

      You are NOT reading what I wrote. I agree that CRIMINALS should be convicted. Duh. The concern that this article brings up is the potential for INNOCENT people to be WRONGFULLY implicated in crimes. How is it possible for you to interpret that as a desire to see criminals run free??? You are being intentionally obtuse; it doesn't make sense and it certainly doesn't make for a productive discussion.