A sting with staying power

Published on August 11, 2014

Nelson Hart, the central Newfoundland man initially convicted of drowning his two daughters in Gander Lake in 2002, is a free man.

Hart left police custody last week after a July 31 Supreme Court decision disallowed key evidence for the Crown — a confession extracted from Hart during an elaborate RCMP “Mr. Big” sting operation.

In Mr. Big operations, a suspect is lured by undercover police officers into a sham criminal organization. Once the suspect has been sufficiently led down the garden path — sent and paid to do jobs, wined and dined and introduced to new friends — Mr. Big, the fake organization’s head, conducts an interview with the suspect to test their trustworthiness. Suspects are asked to confess to past crimes, often through cash inducements or under threat of violence.

During the Mr. Big operation in question — which came with a $413,268 price tag for the police — Hart was coerced into confessing he killed his daughters. He also returned to the crime scene to explain to an undercover officer how he pushed the girls into the water.

But on July 31, following an appeal by Hart’s lawyers to the Supreme Court, the country’s top court ruled Hart’s confessions were inadmissible. The court said the RCMP’s sting operation had produced unreliable evidence extracted from a psychologically manipulated suspect.

At the time of his confession, police had created an exhilarating new world for Hart, a socially isolated man with a Grade 5 education and a low income. When he confessed, that new reality hung in the balance.

As such, the court argued that given Hart’s circumstances, an untruthful confession would have seemed a reasonable option — a protection mechanism rather than an admission of guilt.

“Put simply, these confessions are not worth the risk they pose,” Justice Michael Moldaver wrote in the court’s 118-page decision. “It would be unsafe to rest a conviction on this evidence.”

And so, the court excluded the confessions from evidence.

Without Hart’s essential testimony, the Crown lost its case for conviction.

In short, the Mr. Big operation was a colossal failure.

For the RCMP and the courts, which spent hundreds of thousands of dollars extracting confessions from Hart and using them to convict him only to have the evidence thrown out and the lone suspect walk free, the operation is egg on their face.

And for Hart, who, nine years after first entering police custody, was released last week after Crown prosecutors announced they wouldn’t pursue a new trial, it is a scar that will forever impact his freedom.

Thanks to the Mr. Big operation, Hart’s confession to killing his daughters, although extracted by force and deemed unusable in court, still festers in the public domain.

An unsavoury public profile following years of court trials and media coverage plastering his face online and in print as the police’s lone suspect will undoubtedly prey upon his new life.

In the eyes of the law, Hart is now a free man — there is no evidence to convict him and no new trial date set to try to do so. But the court of public opinion has never abided by the same guidelines as the courts. Nor has it ever separated conjecture from facts in its understanding of events.

With the inescapable identity created for Hart thanks to his conviction, trying to reintegrate into his community will bring a new challenge at every turn.

People may not take kindly to someone they have only ever been exposed to as a criminal — especially one who was at one time tried and convicted based on his own confessions.

For Hart as well, the Mr. Big operation comes with a lasting sting.

With this Mr. Big sting operation, everyone got stung.

What a massive bungle.

Patrick Butler, who’s from Conception Bay South, is studying journalism at Carleton University. He can be reached by email at patrickbutler5@yahoo.ca.