Share your thoughts on The Interrogation Room below
By: Allya Davidson and Linden MacIntyre
It was supposed to be just another birthday party. Instead, it became a crime scene that would leave one man dead, gunned down execution-style, and completely shatter another’s life. Innocent bystanders were manipulated by police until they lied - forced to change their stories and turn the birthday boy into a murder suspect.
On November 3, 2006, Mervyn “Mikey” Spence headed to a party at a Brampton, Ontario club. A video from the party shows him swaying along to the music - mere hours before he would be shot and killed in the club’s parking lot. At about 4 a.m. Spence’s killers chased him out of the club, shooting as he ran past several parked cars until they caught up and shot him point-blank.
By the time police arrived, the shooters were long gone - their convoy caught on security cameras. Those grainy images of cars driving out of the lot were the police’s only lead. The murder had all the markings of a gang-related hit: no immediate suspects. Peel Regional Police boasted an extraordinary success rate. They would spend more than 3 years investigating Mikey Spence’s murder, eventually charging a man named Eric Morgan. When Morgan was acquitted seven years later, the judge gave unusual instructions to the jury: there is only one possible verdict in this case; you must bring back a not guilty verdict.
The Peel Police used an investigative technique that has come under fire from critics for potentially eliciting false confessions. What made their application of the Reid Technique unbelieveable in this case was that they used the technique on witnesses. The judge in the case would eventually decry some of the “abuse and oppressive” tactics used by the police—and shockingly those interrogation techniques were used not against a suspect – but bystanders and witnesses.
THE BIRTHDAY BOY
In the days after Mikey Spence’s 2006 shooting, police proceeded with the usual witness interviews. There wasn’t much to go on except that one of the three or four shooters was a “large, bald, very dark-skinned black man” who had been wearing sunglasses. Working with barely more than this thin description and some 31 bullet casings, police moved on to cultivating potential sources. They developed a relationship with Eric “Action” Morgan, an event promoter and the birthday boy, hoping he would be able to provide them with a lead given his popularity in the community. Morgan hardly knew the victim and had been inside cutting and handing out birthday cake at the time of the shooting. Still, police kept pressing him for information, meeting him as a potential source several times. Typically they’d meet in an unmarked vehicle, secretly recording everything he said, while reassuring him everything was off the record and that he was not a suspect as seen in transcripts and tapes obtained by the fifth estate: [Officer]“I don’t in any way believe you shot Mikey, ok. Cause I know you weren’t around him when he got shot and I know you’re like, in the club, about to cover or you were just leaving.” They pushed Morgan for any information he had - even gossip. Morgan refused to tell them about anything he hadn’t seen with his own eyes.
It was not until three years into the investigation, that police started making arrests. They charged six men; all had alleged gang connections. There was talk that one had an old grudge against the victim. There was little hard evidence linking the men to the crime. But before their trial could start in June 2010, a stunning development emerged. It would transform the prosecution and trample Eric Morgan’s life.
Elaine Morrison was outside the club when the shooting happened. She had been leaning on her car, flirting with a DJ. In her 2006 statement, she said she hadn’t seen much, maybe two seconds worth. She remembered someone wearing sunglasses. Shown a picture of Morgan at the time, she didn’t recognize him.
But now, four-and-a-half years later making her pre-trial statements, a flash in her memory as she reviews the birthday party video. The fifth estate has obtained the police interview video recording of Morrison’s statement. Morrison hears someone wishing Morgan a happy birthday. She asks the officer to pause and asks “She said Happy Birthday to that guy. Did she just say that?”
Back in 2006 Morrison had heard a rumour, that the night of the shooting also happened to be the killer’s birthday. Gossip perhaps stemming from the fact that the murder happened at a birthday party. But what Morrison couldn’t have known at the time, was that there were several other people celebrating birthdays at the club that night, or that one of the original 6 accused’s birthday was around the same time. That gossip would transform the murder case.
With some gentle prompting from the officer as they watch the party video, gossip and memory merge. By the end of her interview she is giving a physical description of Morgan to police. The only problem is that she is describing what she sees paused on the TV screen in front of her.
It would change everything. Charges against the six gang affiliates would evaporate and Peel Regional Police would focus on Eric Morgan. On June 15, 2010, Eric Morgan, the laid-back club promoter with no history of violence was heading to the Brampton courthouse -- expecting to testify in the case of the six men accused of killing Mikey Spence. Instead, Morgan recalls, “Maybe half an hour after I get to the courthouse, you know like 6 cops rush me in. to give me a charge for murder.”
He was taken from the courthouse to Maplehurst Detention Centre. He wouldn’t leave again for three-and-a-half years.
Morgan was sure it was all a mistake, and when homicide officers went to see him, they seemed ready to help. They asked for the names of anybody who was at his birthday party who could verify his story - that he had been on a raised platform handing out cake when a woman ran in and screamed there had been a shooting outside. “I figure the moment [police] go and talk to these people, they will realize that I am telling the truth and they will release me and send me home. That was my thought, that was my intention.”
The police had a different intention - they’d attack his alibi by attacking the motives and the memories of witnesses. Police would build their case using aggressive tactics usually reserved for suspects - a version of what’s called The Reid Technique. The Reid Technique has been around since 1947, and is named for its creator, John E. Reid, a polygraphist. The Reid Company teaches techniques for spotting liars using cues in tone of voice and body language. Once the lie is spotted, The Reid Technique teaches how to break the suspect down until they confess - even using lies and manipulation if necessary. The Reid Technique has come under fire from critics because of the way it uses psychological manipulation. These tactics, according to critics have resulted in false confessions in several cases.
The Reid Technique has also had its successes, notably in eliciting a confession from convicted murdered and rapist Colonel Russell Williams and Naval officer turned spy, Jeffrey Delisle. The Reid Company declined to be interviewed by the fifth estate but did say: “The Reid Tech can and should be used on witnesses. If you have someone who keeps changing their story and keeps giving you more and more incriminating evidence you want to stay with them. But as we say in our book, if after 3 or 4 hours the person is adamant in their denials and you don’t get any sense of progress then you should re-evaluate the situation because maybe you’re not dealing with the guilty person, maybe you’re dealing with someone who isn’t involved. Because lengthy interrogations is a big factor in what causes false confessions.”
ACCESSORY AFTER THE FACT
Sasha Allison was among the guests at Morgan’s birthday party. She had been outside sitting in Elaine Morrison’s car and caught a brief glimpse of the killers before she ducked down in her seat. Just like Morrison, in her original statement Allison said the shooter was “bald and very dark.” Unlike Morrison, she knew of Morgan, had seen him around. She knew him by his promotional name, Action. In 2009, she had this exchange with a police interviewer when Morgan appeared in the birthday video: Allison: Oh Action? Yeah, I know Action, but it’s not Action I know that.
[Officer]: Sorry you know Action, but who’s not Action?
Allison: The guy that did it …
[Officer]: The guy that did it’s not Action?
Allison: No. I know who Action is.”
But by June of 2010, police had one, very weak, positive identification of Morgan courtesy of Elaine Morrison. They needed another to make the arrest. Allison was called into the Peel Police station on June 14, 2010 and would remain there for over five hours. By the next day, the cops would have enough to arrest Morgan.
Allison insisted she didn’t know anyone involved in the shooting - her memory was clear about that. But after five-and-a-half hours of classic Reid Technique interrogation and intimidation tactics, she would fold and give police the ammunition they were looking for.
Sasha Allison was not a suspect, she was a witness. But to the officer, Thomas Doherty, she was a liar. And he told her, on video recording, in no uncertain terms what would happen if she didn’t change her story. From that interview transcript obtained by the fifth estate:
Doherty: It’ll come out. It needs to be dealt with and anyone who holds back on telling the truth now that it’s out there.
Allison: mm hm
Doherty: Becomes a party to the offence. It’s called an accessory after the fact.
Doherty: so a person knowing that someone was involved in a crime
Doherty: Does certain things to assist that person in escaping
Allison: in getting away
Doherty: is an accessory after the fact.
Doherty: okay? I don’t want you going down that road for yourself. You’ve got too much on the go and you’re an entrepreneur.
Allison: mm hm
Doherty. You’ve got two young daughters to look after. So take a few minutes, and I’ll come back to see you, ok?”
Officer Doherty has frightened Allison with the threat of charges. He then leaves her alone in the intentionally cold interrogation room - another Reid Technique trick. She begins to fret and speak to herself out loud:
“I don’t even know who he’s talking about. God, I don’t even know who he’s talking about. My kids, my kids. This is so stressful...Oh My stomach.”
Dr Tim Moore, Chair of Psychology Department at Toronto’s York University has viewed Sasha Allison’s interrogation video. He is an expert in courtroom rules of evidence and interrogation and often appears as an expert witness at trials. He understands Allison’s distress. He has seen it before, but usually it’s a suspect, not a witness on camera: “it's a pretty stressful situation. It's very intense to be in an interrogation room with a police officer and have him or her detailing for you. It's more implicit than explicit. But they make it clear one way or another that you are doomed if you don't get onto the same page with them. I was astonished and I'm still astonished that they used those Reid style tactics on witnesses. I mean it's bad enough to use them on a suspect. But to use them on a witness, I was flabbergasted.”
After more than five hours inside the interrogation room, including long stretches alone, Sasha Allison does get onto the same page as police. The police video obtained by the fifth estate shows her weakly answer Officer Doherty’s latest iteration of the question he has been repeating:
Doherty: The person with the sunglasses that was outside involved in the shooting is …
Allison: Action [voice rises as if asking a question]
D: Action? Okay, thank you for sharing that with me.”
Police had what they needed - not one, but two people who placed Morgan outside the club. Morrison was probably basing her identification on rumour, but after pressuring Allison, police had a second ID. Eric Morgan was arrested the next day.
HOW DID I GET INTO THIS?
The Peel Regional Police had cobbled together enough to arrest Eric Morgan but they knew they needed to build their case for the trial. Sasha Allison and Elaine Morrison may have vaguely identified Morgan, but he still had at least half a dozen people who were sure they were inside the club with him when Mikey Spence was murdered. The most important person in that group was Brian Cox, Morgan’s best friend. Beginning with his first interview with police in 2006, Cox was adamant that he and Morgan were standing beside each other when they learned there had been a shooting.
Cox told the fifth estate’s Linden MacIntyre: “There was nothing in [Eric’s] character or his make up that would lead me to believe that he was even capable of this.” Cox had already told his story to police in 2006, that Morgan was standing beside him, handing out birthday cake when they both learned of the shooting. After Morgan’s arrest in June 2010, police called Cox at home, early one morning to stop by for another chat. Cox would be intimidated and threatened over the course of the next eight-and-a-half hours.
Officer Chris Giles starts at around 7:45am by asking Cox if he is sure of his original account of the night Mikey Spence was murdered. Cox is emphatic on the interview tape:
“we were packing up the remnants of the cake. I was eating cake, I remember specifically, because how I remember this is the first time I heard about the shooting.
Cox: It’s like a JFK moment, it’s like a 911 moment, where were you when you first heard about that.
Cox: Anything that happened after that is, is open to, you know, chaos. But everybody remembers that JFK moment, that 911 moment.
Cox: That Paul Henderson moment. You know? Where were you when Paul Henderson scored that goal for Canada?
Cox: Where were you at-, when, when you heard about 911.
Giles: I get the point, Brian.”
Over the course of the 8 hours, police’s hostility would escalate. At no point is Cox offered a lunch break, or even a drink of water. In an unbelievable moment, Detective Giles leaves Cox alone in the interrogation room during what Cox thinks is an earthquake:
Cox: “Is this an earthquake? ...The building is shaking.
Giles: Yeah. Just stay there for a second.
Cox: Don’t leave me in here, man.”
Cox was right, it was an earthquake, a small tremor that rattled the Ontario-Quebec border and the Greater Toronto Area. No damage was reported at the time but Cox was left inside the interrogation room to wait it out alone.
As the day dragged on, it became clear that Cox and police were not on the same side. As Cox later told Linden MacIntyre: “after about the third hour and I’m still there answering questions, and, basically, the police didn’t like what I was saying. My story didn’t change from 2006. And I believe the police didn’t want to hear that.”
It only got worse. After five hours, Chris Giles, who had been playing the “good cop” left, and the role of the “bad cop” fell to Detective Daniel Johnstone. He would tackle it with gusto, bursting into the room and into Cox’s face with accusations that Cox was lying. He told Cox it was his opinion that he should be arrested right there and then, but he would give Cox one more chance to change his story. Johnstone even implies that Eric is in surveillance video that shows cars fleeing the murder scene. Cell phone company evidence would prove Eric was still on the premises at least 8 minutes after the cars left. But Cox did not know that is it perfectly okay for cops to lie during interrogations.
After Johnstone confronts and berates Cox, the “good cop,” Detective Chris Giles returns. But he has had a change in attitude.
Giles: “Brian, if you don’t tell me the truth, you are gonna be arrested and charged with accessory after the fact to murder and you’re gonna go to jail today. Do you understand that? Do you understand that? Do you understand that, Brian? I’m not playing games here.
Cox: How did I get into this?
Giles: You got into it by providing a false alibi…
Cox: No, I didn’t.
Giles: …for Eric Morgan.
Cox: I’m thinking that’s, that’s-, I’m remembering.
Giles: Let me ask you this. Do you wanna be charged, arrested, charged…
Giles: …put in jail and take your chances and go to court and-, like everyone else or what do you wanna do? There is a possibility that some of these charges could be upgraded from second degree to first degree.
Giles: And if you’re an accessory aft-, to first degree murder,buddy boy, let me tell ya, people hear that and you get kind of queasy and the room starts to go a little dark. So it’s, you know what, it’s your call.”
Hours into what was supposed to be a quick visit to confirm his statement, Brian Cox sits listless. He hasn’t eaten in 8 hours. Then Detective Johnstone re-enters the room and delivers the fatal blow. He tells Cox that no one else who was at the club that night puts Morgan inside the club. He implies Cox is alone in his insistence, with the (false) spectre of criminal charges for Cox hanging in the background.
After eight hours, Brian Cox knew exactly what the police had to hear:
Johnstone: And I think you can tell me whether or not he was standing beside you.
Cox: He wasn’t standing beside me.
He was done. And so was his best friend. Cox had arrived at the police station around 7:30 that morning, thinking he would be there for a few minutes. He didn’t leave until close to 4pm. It was all over with with five words and it’s a betrayal that haunts Cox to this day. He told the fifth estate “the only choice that I thought that was available to me was to tell the police exactly what they wanted to hear so that I could leave that interrogation room, go home, and continue my life, and that’s the only choice they left me with.”
GAMBLING WITH LIFE
After two years and eight months in jail, Eric Morgan’s case finally went to trial. Sasha Allison and Brian Cox were prosecution witnesses. But they would both tell the court how they had been bullied into making false statements during their police interviews. A perplexed jury would deliberate for five days - and give up. Eric Morgan would go back to jail and wait ten more months for a new trial.
Jim Fleming and David Shulman would defend Morgan in his second trial. They were apprehensive, given the outcome of the first. Jim Fleming: “The jury, after 5 days of deliberation, could not reach a verdict. That means there were at least some members of the jury who were prepared to convict him.”
Fleming had a serious problem. Because of aggressive police interviews, Morgan had no alibi. Both Brian Cox and Sasha Allison were brought in as prosecution witnesses and both recanted their coerced police statements while on the stand in the first trial. They each told the court how they had been manipulated into making false statements. Their multiple statements meant their testimony was now useless to both Prosecution and Defence. The judge in the second trial, Justice Fletcher Dawson, moved to exclude parts of Brian Cox’s police interview saying the interview was “so oppressive that to permit the Crown to take advantage of the abusive tactics employed during the interview, by using evidence the police virtually manufactured to attack the credibility of an important defence witness on a question as central as alibi, would bring the administration of justice into disrepute."
In effect, the prosecution had no case, and so they offered to accept a guilty plea from Morgan for a lesser charge - manslaughter. The sentence for that charge would amount to the time he’d already spent in jail. Morgan was faced with a difficult choice - accept the deal and go home right away, but also accept guilt for a crime he didn’t commit, or take his chance in court.
Morgan took a night to think about it and decided to put his trust in the courts, “I decided, you know, they are going to have to give me a life sentence if they find me guilty but I'm not taking the deal, I did not commit this crime. No I'm not going to plead guilty to a murder I didn't commit.”
The Peel Police’s use of the so-called Reid technique had left a scorched earth of tainted witnesses. Peel Police declined repeated interview requests stating the courts had brought the case to its conclusion they weren't going to comment. After years of investigation, the prosecution case amounted to one person: Elaine Morrison. The second trial began on November 4, 2013, Eric Morgan birthday and the seventh anniversary of Mikey Spence’s murder.
When Morrison, the crucial witness, was pressed by defence - was she 100% certain that Morgan was the shooter she saw - Morrison hesitated, and then admitted, no she was not sure. This admission was fatal to the Crown’s case. Sitting in the courtroom watching, Eric Morgan recognized the significance of what had just happened. “She said no, I'm not a 100% sure and right away I realized that I'm going home from there.” The prosecution case had collapsed. Lead Prosecutor Eric Taylor declined several interview requests by the fifth estate. He said in an email that “there is nothing I can add to what I have already said in court.”
Jim Fleming, Eric Morgan’s defence attorney, wondered why the Crown prosecutor had even brought the case to trial a second time. Fleming told the fifth estate’s Linden MacIntyre that the lead prosecutor, Eric Taylor was, in his words “blindly loyal to the police.” Fleming questioned why the Crown chose to try the case not just once, but twice.
Justice Dawson made his views absolutely clear he told the jury: “in a moment I’m going to invite you to go back to your jury room, and then really I must say I completely concur that in this case the only reasonable verdict you could reach is one of not guilty.” Unusually, it was move supported by not just the Defence but also the Prosecution. Eric Morgan finally went home.
The Crown moved on to other cases, and the police to other crimes. And whoever killed Mikey Spence got away with it. The officers who botched the investigation moved on, unquestioned, unaccountable.
Fleming thinks that Morgan’s acquittal should not be the end of this case, “the Attorney General should take a look at this case. There should be an inquiry of some sort that would look into the other homicide cases where these specific police officers were involved in other murder prosecutions, to see whether something like this has happened in the past.”
Eric Morgan was left with a life in ruins, estranged from community and family. He is in therapy for emotional and physical damage suffered while in prison. But he and Brian Cox are friends again, that much of his life is as it was before. As to whether this will truly be over for him, Morgan is still optimistic: “I hope. I'm still trying to reach back to that place where I was. Let's hope I can get back there you know, very soon. I'm still trying to reach back to that place where I was. Where I didn’t make anything bother me. I was a happy person. Let's hope I can get back there you know, very soon.”
Post Script: In November 2014, Eric Morgan launched a civil suit against the Peel Regional Police. He also filed a formal complaint with the Office of the Independent Police Review Director.