Mr. Big confessions about Mayerthorpe massacre not reliable, says prof

The confessions that Shawn Hennessey and Dennis Cheeseman made during the RCMP’s undercover operation investigating the Mayerthorpe massacre can’t be trusted, says a leading expert on Mr. Big stings, reported the Edmonton Journal July 19. 

"Here you’ve got two guys saying different things on different occasions to different people for different reasons over a two-year period. I mean, to me, this does not smack of reliability," says forensic psychologist Tim Moore, a professor at York’s Glendon College, who has read the Journal series on Hennessey and Cheeseman’s case.  

Hennessey and Cheeseman are now serving lengthy prison sentences after pleading guilty to four counts of manslaughter for assisting Jim Roszko to murder four RCMP officers in his Quonset on March 3, 2005. Almost all of the RCMP’s information about Cheeseman and Hennessey’s apparent guilt comes from Cheeseman’s and Hennessey’s own mouths, from Cheeseman’s confessions to his boss Brad McNish in December 2005 and March 2006, and from Cheeseman’s numerous confessions to Mr. Big operatives from February to April 2007, as well as Hennessey’s confession to Mr. Big on July 6 and 7, 2007.  

But their Mr. Big confessions have been labelled by critics as unreliable and prejudicial, the same criticism found in so many other Mr. Big cases. Indeed, Mr. Big operations aren’t allowed in any other country, save for Australia, says Moore, who along with defence lawyer Peter Copeland and psychologist Regina Schuller, a professor in York’s Faculty of Health, is the author of the first major legal and academic study on the Mr. Big scenario, "Deceit, betrayal and the search for truth: Legal and psychological perspectives on the ‘Mr. Big’ strategy," which is to be published in Criminal Law Quarterly.  

In the US and Europe, the Mr. Big strategy is viewed as entrapment, as law enforcement officials luring suspects into a criminal activity. It’s deemed to be an overly aggressive and illegal act by the state against a private citizen. "I’m sometimes at a loss for words how to describe the Mr. Big tactic because it’s so unprecedented in terms of the degree of manipulation and intrusion and invasion of privacy," Moore says.  

In the old days of Canadian law enforcement, it wasn’t unusual for the police to try to get an undercover officer or agent inside a criminal gang, or close to a criminal, to glean whatever information the agent could. But today, in this Mr. Big era of Canadian policing, the police don’t just sit back and passively wait for something to drop. They don’t infiltrate the gang, they create one out of RCMP agents. In more than 300 Mr. Big operations, they have concocted fantastic worlds of crime and scenarios that would challenge a Hollywood screenwriter to dream up, all of them tailored to manipulating the particular psychological makeup of the investigation’s particular target.  

Mr. Big has been increasingly utilized by the RCMP since the late 1980s, when it was developed by Sgt. Al Haslett of Kelowna, BC. It’s most often used in cold cases, where the police have a suspect they believe isn’t telling the whole truth, say Moore, Schuller and Copeland in their Mr. Big study. 

DNA evidence has exonerated dozens of North Americans convicted of murder, and false confessions were found to have been a prime factor in many wrongful convictions. “Confessions in front of jurors are compelling, any confessions in any case," Moore says. "People aren’t able to distinguish truth from fiction very well. People trust confessions and they have difficulty disregarding them, even when there are good reasons to do so."  

Moore argues it’s not always possible for the RCMP to know when they have a false confession. The police start out a Mr. Big scenario with a strong theory about how the crime was committed and if a confession confirms that theory, they proceed with charges. But what if the theory was always incorrect? "They do not know what the truth is," Moore says of the RCMP. "The problem may be that they think they know what the truth is, and the goal is to obtain confirming evidence. This is classic tunnel vision."  

  • So far, Canadian courts have accepted almost every single Mr. Big confession, reported the Edmonton Journal July 19 in a related story. Forensic psychologist Tim Moore, a York University professor and a leading expert on Mr. Big operations, argues judges should be more cautious about them. In one Mr. Big sting, two different criminals confessed to the same crime, both saying they acted on their own. In another Mr. Big, a suspect quickly confessed to two different murders, one of which he certainly did not commit. "If the tactic is capable of exposing the guilty and ensnaring the innocent, then we’ve got to be careful."  

A final major issue with Mr. Big confessions is that unlike a confession to the police, a Mr. Big suspect seemingly doesn’t have to worry about any negative consequences from confessing. He thinks he’ll be accepted into a lucrative gang, not charged by the police, as a result of his confessing. But lying about a murder to a gang of criminals could be a gamble that the suspect is prepared to take, compared to upsetting the gang, inviting their wrath and squandering their connection to the criminal organization, reports the Mr. Big paper.  

It’s not known if this particular dynamic was at work with Cheeseman and Hennessey, though Moore sees it as a possibility. "They are dealing in lies and deceit," Moore says of the Mr. Big operators. "If lies and deceit are your stock-in-trade, then lies are what you might get in return."  

York law prof welcomes Supreme Court decision on tainted evidence

The Supreme Court has ruled in a quartet of cases that evidence obtained by police in violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms can be used to convict the accused, unless the violation is blatant, reported The Globe and Mail July 17.  

The Court voted to permit the use of tainted evidence in most of the test cases, which ran the gamut from possession of a loaded gun, to cocaine trafficking, possession of stolen property and impaired driving.  

While the upshot of the rulings was not as devastating toward the rights of the accused as defence counsel had feared, they will almost certainly lead to a reduction in the number of cases where important evidence is tossed out because of police misconduct.  

The two key cases – R vs. Grant and R vs. Harrison – provided the Court with an opportunity to redesign rules that govern throwing out tainted evidence when police have violated key sections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Its task was to develop rules that will not automatically bar evidence derived from self-incrimination, but will still encourage police to obey the law. 

The Harrison case involved a police officer, Ontario Provincial Police Constable Brian Bertoncello, who searched a car without a valid reason and later lied in court in an attempt to justify his actions. Defendant Bradley Harrison had driven non-stop from Vancouver with a friend. After he was pulled over, Bertoncello ripped open two boxes in a storage compartment at the back of Harrison’s SUV, uncovering 35 kilograms of cocaine with a street value of $2.4 million to $4.6 million. Harrison’s trial judge admitted the cocaine as evidence even though he found the search a contrived and brazen breach of the defendant’s constitutional rights. 

In the Grant case, a young Toronto man was convicted of possessing a loaded gun and marijuana after police breached his Charter right to be free of illegal detention. His lawyers argued that Grant, who was 18 at the time, undoubtedly felt he was being detained after police stopped him on a sidewalk, questioned him and impeded his progress. Following a six-minute discussion with the officers, Grant blurted: “I have a firearm.” Whether acting out of fear, intimidation or simple honesty, Grant emptied his pockets, revealing a bag of marijuana and a loaded gun. The Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the trial judge’s decision to permit the gun and marijuana evidence to be admitted at his trial, even though it conceded that three police officers had “psychologically” detained him in an illegal manner. 

However, defence lawyers at the Grant and Harrison appeals urged the court not to continue sliding away from rules it created a dozen years ago, under which evidence was excluded, even in murder cases, if police misconduct brought the justice system “into disrepute”. They maintained that in creating a template for the exclusion of evidence tainted by self-incrimination, the Supreme Court had brought order and predictability to an inflamed debate – a debate that will erupt again if the court were to overturn its seminal ruling in the case of Regina vs. Stillman. Under the Stillman rules, tainted evidence has been excluded in thousands of cases. The rules dictate that virtually any evidence obtained by police as a result of “conscripting” an individual to incriminate himself cannot be used against him at trial. 

James Stribopoulos, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, predicted in an interview last year that, were Grant to lose his appeal, police would feel free to stop citizens at whim. More often than not, Stribopoulos said those who are stopped will belong to minority groups. Overturning Stillman would also cause people to question the permanency of all Supreme Court rulings, he added, since it would serve as a signal to lower court judges “that the due process revolution occasioned by the Charter has now come to an end – and that our concern for civil liberties must be increasingly tempered by more pressing and less idealistic concerns about combatting gun violence.  

“This would be a real tragedy, especially given that such a shift would not be based in fact,” Stribopoulos added. “In reality, violent crime is actually down. The perception that we are in a crisis has very much been fuelled by sensationalistic media reporting and opportunism by our politicians. It is exactly at times like these that the court serves us best by staying true to important and established constitutional principles.”  

Stribopoulos praised the Court Friday for taking its first serious run at interpreting a forgotten section of the Charter – its S.9 guarantee to be free from arbitrary detention or imprisonment. He also described the new exclusionary rule as being “a considerable improvement over Stillman.” 

“It does away with some of the problems that had emerged under Stillman and its overly categorical and needlessly rigid approach,” Stribopoulos said. “Hopefully, lower court judges will see past the result, in which the Court admits the handgun,” he said. “The Court was careful to explain that it was doing so in large part because the demarcating line between permissible police-citizen encounters and constitutionally prohibited arbitrary detentions was unclear prior to today’s judgment.”  

Stribopoulos said that the Court made it clear that, while the officers in Grant were to be forgiven for making an honest mistake in navigating this confusing area of the law, “in future, police officers who do what the officers did in Grant can expect that the fruits of their unconstitutional efforts will be excluded.”  

He said that the Court managed to overturn Stillman without sending the wrong message to the police. “To the contrary, it sends a very sensible and clear message: ‘Police officers, know and obey the law. If you exceed the established limits on your legal authority and happen to acquire evidence in the process, you will not be rewarded.’”  

Taken together, Stribopoulos said, “these judgments are a real breath of fresh air for those of us who are concerned about civil liberties and what has been a noticeable trend in lower courts towards the admission of unconstitutionally obtained evidence.”  

Race not an issue, York Region hospitals say

A York University study claiming nurses in Ontario experience racism on the job from patients, doctors, managers and colleagues isn’t mirrored in York Region hospitals, administrators said, reported July 18.  

"It’s an interesting study, but difficult to interpret in any great depth," Markham Stouffville Hospital organizational effectiveness vice-president Carole Moore said of the survey released last week. "The study is more prevalent than my experience."  

Conducted several years ago for a book by Professor Tania Das Gupta, chair of York’s Department of Equity Studies, and based on 593 responses from Ontario Nurses’ Association members, the study found 41 per cent of respondents had been made to feel uncomfortable because of their race, colour or ethnicity.  

The research is important, but not reflective of York Central Hospital, Diversity Council chairperson Carla Palmer said. "We work in a diverse community and have a diverse staff,” she said. "Our goal is to create a great working environment and, as such, needed to include a focus on diversity. In 2007, we established the Diversity Council. There is great commitment from the CEO, staff, staff beyond leadership. It’s a way to get feedback."  

Freelance cameraman tells of opportunities and drawbacks

Aizick Grimman (BA Hons. ’02) is a mercenary for hire, but instead of a gun, he carries a camera, reported Metro July 20. The 29-year-old freelance cameraman and photographer decided five years ago to make his love of photography and films into a career working for the best – and toughest – boss he could imagine: Himself. 

Since 2004 his career has seen him hired for more than a few adventures, like travelling across Canada filming tours of haunted houses and flying to the United Arab Emirates to cover an education conference and film a documentary. He is principle camera operator on the health and lifestyle show “Fit & Fabulous” for Rogers TV and he also does corporate filming work, which he says tends to be the most lucrative of all. 

While he considers live camerawork his main gig, like most freelancers in their respective industries, Grimman puts on many other hats as well. He regularly works as a video editor for CBC Newsworld, does freelance still photography and teaches editing and camera work at Seneca College. Operating as a jack-of-all-trades in his field means he keeps a relatively steady work schedule.

He finished a degree in sociology and communications from York University and worked in social services for a year before realizing his love for media was a passion worth pursuing. He did a two-year broadcast television program at Seneca College and set out to work as a freelancer.

Fear is pushing more workers to strike despite recession, say experts

The recession’s aura of fear does not appear to have daunted the resolve of aggrieved Canadian workers in the slightest, reported The Canadian Press in a story published July 18 in the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. Indeed, strikes were twice as prevalent in the opening three months of 2009 than a year earlier, when times were better. 

Labour experts say that’s likely because, while workers do fear for their jobs in a timme of high unemployment, that’s overcome by anger at what is seen as employer hypocrisy – asking for concessions while appearing to refuse to make any.  

The first quarter of 2009 saw almost twice as many work days lost to labour disputes as the same period in 2008, according to Statistics Canada. Major strikes currently underway include those by outside workers in the cities of Windsor and Toronto; miners at Vale Inco in Sudbury, Ont., Port Colborne, Ont., and Voisey’s Bay, NL; and paramedics in BC. Labour disputes were recently resolved with National Steel Car employees in Hamilton, teaching assistants, contract faculty and graduate assistants at York University in Toronto and transit workers in Ottawa.  

Developments are poised to capitalize on transit expansions

Building transit-friendly sites have been an integral part of Liberty Development’s vision, reported the Toronto Star July 18. One of Liberty’s new developments, Metro Place, which is playing a crucial role in the transformation of the Sheppard Avenue West area, capitalizes on handy access to transit. The Downsview subway station is directly across the street and connects Metro Place residents to the downtown core. By 2015, the Toronto-York Spadina subway will extend 8.6 kilometres from Downsview station northwest through York University and to the Vaughan Corporate Centre. Six new stations will be built along the extension. 

Artist’s show records a spot in the woods

Local artist Chris Rogers (BFA Spec. Hons. ’79) ventured to the same spot in the woods 52 times last year, then created something based on each of those visits, reported the Orangeville Banner July 16.

“From Jan. 1, 2008 to Dec. 31, 2008, I went to a spot in the woods once a week and documented my observations. I did sketches and took pictures that were the basis for my work,” she said. Over that year and the next, Rogers set about creating several works of art based on her time spent in the forest. The results of this endeavour are the subject of an upcoming exhibit at the Dufferin County Museum and Archives titled the Time and Place Project, which opens Aug. 30.

Study: Many university students report experiencing violence

They may have come in for a sprained ankle or to refill their birth control prescriptions, but almost one in five university students visiting their school’s health clinics reported being victims of violence in the past six months, a new University of British Columbia study shows, reported The Daily Gleaner in Fredericton, NB, July 17. Sexual assaults reported in 2007 at York University in Toronto and Carleton University in Ottawa brought attention to the issue of violence on university campuses, said the Gleaner.  

On air 

  • Paul Delaney, a senior lecturer in astronomy in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, talked about Canadian Julie Payette’s role during the first of five spacewalks planned by the International Space Station shuttle mission, on “CTV News” July 19. He also discussed space programs of the future on “CTV News” July 20.