The trial into the death of Victoria Stafford has revealed disturbing details about the final hours of the Woodstock, Ont., girl, but it has also shed light on a highly skilled police interrogator.
On March 21, the jury watched a videotape of a May 2009 police interview in which Ontario Provincial Police Det. Sgt. Jim Smyth questions Terri-Lynne McClintic about her involvement in Stafford's death.
"I look at this as like taking off a Band-Aid: you can do it quickly, and get it done, right? Or you can keep pulling it, a little bit at a time, and that's what hurts. That's what you're going through right now," Smyth is seen telling McClintic.
"Let's tear that Band-Aid off. Just tell me what you saw."
Ontario Provincial Police Det. Sgt. Jim Smyth joined York Regional Police in 1989. In June 1997 he began working with the OPP, moving to the behavioural sciences section of the force in 2000. The criminal profiling unit is a small group of officers who receive enhanced training in skills such as understanding personalities of offenders. They also provide training to field officers, conduct homicide courses, and assist investigators in the field. Smyth was recently promoted to the OPP's major criminal investigations branch as a major case manager.
Moments later, McClintic describes how Michael Rafferty, 31, allegedly raped and then killed Stafford using a hammer.
However, the confession contradicts McClintic's claims at the ongoing trial of Rafferty that she was the one who dealt the fatal blows to the eight-year-old girl. McClintic, 21, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in April 2011.
Rafferty has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder, sexual assault causing bodily harm and abduction.
Asked in court on March 30 about the details of his session with McClintic, Smyth replied, "It was an interview. We were trying to gather information from Miss McClintic, again, assess her credibility. Generally we approach an interview in that fashion. We try not to divulge any information we may have until we feel it becomes necessary, until essentially the interview turns into more of an interrogation."
He then elaborated on the difference between and interview and an interrogation and the techniques used.
"In a nutshell, an interview is fact gathering, asking somebody to tell you their version of events, tell you their story and we try and sit back and allow them to do that without challenging them or interrupting them. An interrogation is when we decide to confront somebody on the fact that we believe that they may be responsible for something and challenge them on the information we have and maybe at that point decide to put evidence to them to show them what we know about the investigation and to encourage them to essentially tell us the truth if they’ve been holding back."
Smyth is a behavioural specialist who earned great praise for his 2010 interrogation of Russell Williams, who during the course of the interrogation admitted raping and strangling Jessica Lloyd and raping and suffocating Cpl. Marie France-Comeau as well as committing other sexual assaults.
Williams was sentenced in October 2010 and is serving two life terms in prison for the murders of Comeau and Lloyd, and additional sentences for 86 other charges. Williams had pleaded guilty to all 88 charges against him.
Smyth played a key role in the Stafford case even before the interrogation of Williams. In July 2009, on instinct, he searched a rural road near Mount Forest, Ont., and found the remains of eight-year-old Victoria, who disappeared more than three months earlier.
Media outlets praised Smyth for following his "hunch," though the detective shrugged it off, saying that the police had followed "hundreds of hunches" that hadn't yielded anything.
Coaxed Williams into confession
The confession of Williams was by all accounts expertly coaxed — the work of a whip-smart detective who was unyielding in an interrogation that ran 10 hours.
"It was an excellent piece of police work on behalf of Jim Smyth who conducted this interview — one of the best interviews I've ever seen," Det. Insp. Chris Nicholas, the lead OPP investigator in the case, told reporters in 2010. "It's a smart man being outsmarted by a smarter man."
Smyth is seen in the interrogation videos at first trying to earn Williams's trust and offering access to a lawyer. He then asks him general questions before getting him to agree to submit a DNA sample and an imprint of his boots.
"They begin circling in and in and in — it was a fascinating thing to watch," said CBC reporter Dave Seglins. "I've covered courts and policing, [but] I've never seen anything like this. This is one for the history books, in terms of a police interrogation."
Smyth began his career with the York Regional Police in 1988 before joining the OPP in 1997, according to the Toronto Sun. In 2007, he began working with the provincial police force's polygraph unit, behavioural sciences and analysis services.
Smyth has also taught forensic interviewing and forensic behavioural science at Toronto's Seneca College.
'A science and an art'
James Downs, managing director of the private investigation firm MKD International Inc., said a good interrogator must balance a number of interests over the course of sometimes lengthy interviews with suspects.
The officer must make the person feel comfortable and willing to talk — to gather as much information as possible — without introducing his or her own theory about what happened. The interrogator also cannot make it appear as if the person was forced to confess.
"It’s experience, it's aptitude," the former detective, who spent more than 20 years with the Toronto police, said. "Not everybody can be a great interrogator."
Downs also praised Smyth for getting McClintic to draw maps of the scene where she said the killing took place.
"It’s great evidence," he said. "It’s a further demonstration this was not induced, this is her doing it."
Everything about the interrogation is crafted down to specific details about how the officer acts and requires a lot of preparation in advance, Downs said.
"It’s a science and an art," he said. "It’s a combination of the two."