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Pam Frampton: Mr. Big strikes (out) again

['Nelson Hart, who had murder charges overturned earlier this year, has pleaded not guilty to assaulting and threatening prison guards.  His trial is set for Feb. 17-19, 2015.']
Nelson Hart is shown in court in this Telegram file photo.

Friends and neighbours say 57-year-old Vicki Brauns-Buckley of Chester Basin, N.S., was a loving mother of two, a widow with a warm spot for animals, a loyal friend and a skilled photographer who captured the natural beauty around her with an unerring eye.

Pam Frampton
Pam Frampton

If only there was as sharp a picture of how she died.

Buckley was found dead in her home on March 2, 2012 — murdered, police say.

But nearly six years later, there is still no justice for Vicki Buckley, and her son, 23-year-old Jack, has had his own life tainted with suspicion.

Jack was charged twice with killing his mother. The first time, in 2012, he was charged with second-degree murder, but police acknowledged there was little chance of conviction. In 2016 he was charged with first-degree murder when the police said they had new evidence.

But the court never heard what that was, because the judge ruled it inadmissible, and Jack Buckley was released on Friday. He had been targeted in a Mr. Big sting operation by the RCMP.

“It wasn’t as much a ploy to reveal a deep, dark secret — it was a situation where police, posing as criminals, told Mr. Buckley that they had information that he was about to be charged ... with his mother’s death, and if he confessed to them, they could ensure he would not be charged,” his lawyer, Patrick MacEwen told The Canadian Press.

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It’s hardly the first time evidence obtained through a Mr. Big sting has had to be chucked out. In fact, the tactic has come under intense scrutiny, including by the Supreme Court of Canada, which concluded in 2014 that the practice needs stricter guidelines if it is to be continued — that it not involve coercion or exploit a suspect’s mental health, addiction or other vulnerabilities, among other strictures.

Of course, the case that sparked the Supreme Court of Canada ruling was that of Nelson Hart, charged in the drowning deaths of his three-year-old twin daughters, Krista and Karen, in Gander Lake in 2002.

Hart confessed to their deaths in 2005 during an intense Mr. Big operation that introduced him to a glamourous lifestyle he had never experienced before.

“Hart has a Grade 5 schooling and was living on social assistance when he was targeted by the sting,” Allya Davidson wrote for CBC’s “The Fifth Estate” in January 2015. “Hart ate his first ever steak dinner as part of the operation and was paid $16,000 and put up in hotels.”

Perhaps no one will ever know — apart from Nelson Hart himself — whether Hart killed his two daughters; whether his “confession,” though improperly obtained, was the truth.

It’s easy to see why a marginalized person with reportedly low self-esteem, like Hart, might bond quickly with his new, supportive “criminal” family and be prepared to do what he had to do to stay within the bounds of their friendship and protection.

It’s easy to see why Jack Buckley — who his lawyer said “had told (undercover officers) all along that he was not involved in his mother’s death, but they had indicated that they could only help him if he confessed to his involvement” — might be tempted if he thought it might bring his nightmare to an end.

Whatever the case, the judge felt nothing in the RCMP’s evidence against Jack Buckley would withstand scrutiny in court.

And so Vicki Brauns-Buckley’s murder remains unsolved, with no justice served and no closure for her friends and family. Jack Buckley, though freed, likely feels dogged by suspicion.

Perhaps no one will ever know — apart from Nelson Hart himself — whether Hart killed his two daughters; whether his “confession,” though improperly obtained, was the truth.

That’s why the RCMP should take a hard look at its performance record with Mr. Big operations and determine whether they should continue the practice, even with stricter rules.

True, there have been convictions obtained through such stings that have held up. But there is too long a list of cases in Canada that were thrown out with the Mr. Big bathwater than can be overlooked.

Surely no confession is better than one that can’t be trusted.

There is far too much uncertainty when pressure, ploys and intimidation are among the tools of the trade.

Pam Frampton is The Telegram's associate managing editor. Email Twitter: pam_frampton

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