British Columbia

Mr. Big sting used to seduce and coerce unreliable confession, says lawyer

A man who confessed to murdering his wife after she was shot in a Richmond apartment — with her young son nearby — is seeking release on bail pending a ministerial review of his case.

‘Mr. Skiffington’s little boy has become an adult while he’s been in prison’

Wanda Lee Martin was found shot in 1994 with her young son beside her lifeless body. (Supplied by family)

A man who confessed to murdering his wife after she was shot in a Richmond apartment — with her young son nearby — is seeking release on bail pending a ministerial review of his case.

Wade Skiffington, 52, was found guilty of second-degree murder in 2001.

He confessed to the crime six years after his common-law wife Wanda Martin, 20, was shot six times in a friend's apartment in 1994.

His confession is now in contention.

It came after an elaborate undercover police operation launched in the years following her death.

Skiffington is serving a life sentence and appeared in court Monday in a sweater, his long hair tied in a ponytail, behind his shaved head.

Justice Minister reviewing case

The Newfoundland man always said he was innocent and appealed but lost.

Last year, a group dedicated to exonerating the wrongly accused took up his case and appealed to the federal minister of justice to review the conviction.

Wanda Lee Martin was shot six times in a Richmond apartment in 1994. Her infant son was with her when she was found. Her mother recently posted a collage of photos of her growing up in memory of the young woman. (Supplied by family)

Then in 2018, a team in the justice department did a preliminary assessment of the file and determined there was a reasonable basis to conclude that a miscarriage of justice had occurred.

The review is ongoing and could take years.

In the meantime, an organization called Innocence Canada is helping him apply for bail.

Innocence Canada has helped exonerate 22 people since 1993.

Toronto lawyer Philip Campbell says he believes this is the first time such a review has been ordered in a B.C. murder case.

He says it was screened by a team of legal experts in the federal ministry and met a high legal bar.

"The risk of false confession in this case is obvious," he said.

Mr Big sting details remain under wraps

On Monday, Campbell argued in B.C. Supreme Court he hopes the minister will reopen the case and send it to the B.C. Court of Appeal to order a new trial.

He outlined the facts of how Skiffington was arrested after he confessed to the crime during a so-called "Mr. Big"-style operation.

Typically, in such operations, undercover police officers pose as members of a criminal gang. They first ingratiate themselves with the suspect, then try to convince him to confess to a past crime to earn advancement within the criminal organization.

This tactic came under scrutiny in a 2014 Supreme Court of Canada decision which created new guidelines for such undercover operations.

Campbell told Justice Michael Tammen that Skiffington's confession was unreliable because of the tactics used.

'Criminality and menace'

Because of an 18-year-old court-ordered ban, specific details of the operation can't be reported.

But Campbell described the tactics in detail to the judge including, he said, how officers staged violence and "created an atmosphere of criminality and menace" he claims coerced Skiffington's confession.

In general, he said Mr. Big operations use "coercion" and/or "seduction" on a target.

Campbell also provided evidence he says points to the 52-year-old's innocence and the lack of forensic evidence or witnesses that place his client at the murder scene.

He offered an alternative or "innocence hypothesis," saying Skiffington took Martin and her child to the apartment but did not kill her.

He then went back to his usual day working as a carpet layer, the lawyer said.

Little evidence

Skiffington was questioned hours later by police but no forensic evidence was found — no gunshot residue and no gun.

Campbell said his client's case turned on the confession. He said that Skiffington was known to be jealous and possessive of Martin, but their relationship was loving.

In the meantime, he said, "Mr. Skiffington's little boy has become an adult while he's been in prison," noting the young man in the courtroom, who Skiffington often turned to smile at.

Martin had only recently moved to B.C. when she was killed.

Her parents say they are traumatized her murder is back in the news. They attended Skiffington's trial and appeal and believe the original verdict was just.

The recent review of the case is forcing the couple, who raised Martin's son, to relive the horror of the murder again.

"[Nothing] can erase the images of Wanda that must be burned into the memory of the person who left that heinous crime scene on that September day in 1994, leaving a toddler with his mother's body. There is some comfort in knowing that these images will be a part of this persons memory for eternity," Doug and Beverley Martin wrote in a statement to CBC.

To be granted bail, an offender must prove they will surrender themselves into custody when ordered and are not a risk to the public.

The Crown is expected to begin submissions Tuesday.

Wade Skiffington was convicted of second degree murder after his common-law wife was shot in a friend's apartment in 1994. He confessed to the crime following an RCMP sting. (Facebook/Wade Skiffington)

About the Author

Yvette Brend is a CBC Vancouver journalist. @ybrend