By Chris Dart  

The Passionate Eye documentary False Confessions follows defence attorney Jane Fisher-Byrialsen and four of her clients, illuminating some of the dubious interrogation techniques — including outright lying — that police use to pressure innocent and vulnerable people into signing confessions for crimes that they didn’t commit. 

Although laws regarding confessions are different in the United States, where this film is set, there have been many cases involving false confessions in Canada, too.

Canadian law

Here at home, the law also permits the police to lie during interrogations. A confession has to have been made voluntarily, but that’s where things can get a bit murky.

“The judges have to make a judgment call as to whether the circumstances of the interrogation were too oppressive or coercive for the confession to be considered voluntary,” says Lisa Dufraimont, an associate dean at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School.

If police lie to a suspect while they are in a state of stress, they risk having the confession deemed involuntary and thrown out in court. “Saying, ‘We tested your footprints and they turned out to be yours. Tell us if it was you.’ That’s probably not going to get a confession ruled involuntary,” explains Dufraimont.

But, she says, if the police were to lie and tell suspect whose mother had just been killed that they had found the suspect’s DNA on the murder weapon, and suggest that maybe the suspect had killed her in a blackout state, then a confession — under these circumstances — would likely get thrown out.

Questionable methods

In 1996, a 14-year-old girl was murdered in Regina. After more than 15 hours of interrogation, police eventually charged three young men with the killing, after each one of them confessed. All three were also innocent.

“All I know is for hours on end I said, ‘No, I had nothing to do with it.’ Next thing you know I’m sitting here going, ‘Sure, why not. I did it,’” says Joel Labadie, one of the three men who falsely confessed.

Labadie and the others were subjected to a questioning technique known as the Reid model of interrogation, a method employed by police across North America. The tactic is comprised of multiple steps geared toward persuading a guilty person to confess, but all too often, results in innocent suspects offering false confessions.

As seen in False Confessions, the Reid model was also used during police interrogations in the Central Park jogger case in New York. These interrogations led to false confessions from five young men who ended up spending years in prison.

Labadie and the two other men accused of murder in Regina spent nearly four months in jail before DNA evidence led to the conviction of another man.

Mental illness and false confession

Romeo Phillion spent 31 years in prison for a murder that he didn’t commit. In trouble with the law on an unrelated matter, Phillion had confessed to murdering Leopold Roy, a firefighter from Ottawa.

Although his confession was given freely, Phillion recanted it to another police officer on the same night — and repeatedly thereafter. Unfortunately, the damage was done, and because of his confession and faulty eyewitness testimony, he was found guilty by a jury.

More than twenty years later, a police investigation report surfaced that proved Phillion had, in fact, been in Trenton at the time of Roy’s murder, and his case was finally re-opened. Phillion was eventually released on bail in 2003, and his murder charge was dropped in 2010.

Experts believed Phillion suffered from antisocial personality disorder and had a desire for notoriety. Had police recognized Phillion’s condition and offered mental health services, his false confession may have been prevented.

MORE: Malthe Thompsen: False Confession

The Mr. Big sting

The made-in-Canada form of deception known as the “Mr. Big” sting was pioneered by the RCMP in the early 1990s. The details vary from case to case, but it works something like this: An undercover officer, posing as a gangster, befriends a murder suspect. He gets the suspect to do some low-level work, like making cash deposits or delivering packages for his “gang.”

Eventually, the officer offers to introduce the suspect to his boss, “Mr. Big,” who is actually another undercover officer. Mr. Big then offers the suspect help with his legal troubles, but says that before he can do so, he needs a show of goodwill — in the form of a confession.

One of the most famous Mr. Big confessions was proven false. Andy Rose was convicted of the 1983 killing of two German tourists in B.C., based on a confession he’d given during a Mr. Big sting eight years later in 1999. Rose, a recovering alcoholic, was plied with beer during the sting. He was later exonerated in light of DNA evidence.

Although false confessions do still happen in Canada, police methods and the legal system are changing. Today, Canadian police forces are turning away from the Reid method and focusing more on gathering information during questioning instead of chasing a confession.

Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada also ruled that confessions from “Mr. Big” operations cannot stand up by themselves. The courts now require additional, corroborating information to make these confessions relevant.

Watch False Confessions on The Passionate Eye.