In their long history police forces around the world have tried, with varying degrees of success, different police procedures to provoke confessions from suspects in cold cases.1 Many methods the police have tried, for example torture, are not used anymore in democratic societies. In the past, the use of torture has led to many false confessions. This is the reason it is forbidden in many countries in the world as well as for the inhumane treatment of suspects. However, false confessions still happen.
Two studies from Iceland based on self-report – conducted ten years apart – found the rates of false confession to be respectively 12.2% and 24.4%.2 Police methods to provoke a confession out of suspects, have a great impact on the likelihood of the confession being false.3 A method that came in the news recently in the Netherlands is Mr. Big. A judge acquitted a man for murdering his ex-girlfriend because the Dutch police used the Mr Big method to elicit a confession.4 What is the Mr. Big method and why was this man acquitted for the crime he confessed to? We will dive deeper into these questions in this article.
Mr. Big, also known as the Canadian technique, is an investigation technique used by undercover police. Mr. Big operations are never identical, but they all include some common elements.5 Usually there is one person the police suspect to have committed a very serious crime. The police are convinced that this person is guilty, but they miss a key part of evidence. A confession would mean they have enough evidence to bring the suspect before a judge. When the police decide to use the Mr. Big method, phase one of the investigation starts. The police acquire as much information as possible from the suspect. The person is an ideal target for Mr. Big if he lives in social isolation or/and is in financial peril.6 After the undercover police have acquired all the details they will decide if and how they will use Mr. Big. How they will use the method varies greatly but an undercover agent will usually lay contact with the suspect in phase two. He will try to begin a friendship with the suspect. If this works, the suspect will eventually find out that his new friend is part of an organisation.
This can be any organisation, but often it’s involved in something criminal.7 After this the suspect will be asked to do some small favours for the organisation in exchange for a hefty reward. While he exercises these favours the enormous wealth and power of the organisation are shown. After doing bigger favours and getting bigger rewards the suspect will become more and more dependent on the organisation and when the undercover agents assume the suspect is fully committed phase three starts. The suspect will be asked to meet the boss of the organisation, Mr. Big himself. During the meeting the suspect will be asked to confess to his crime. Mr. Big will say that he wants absolute honesty and transparency from his employees. He will also reassure the suspect that the organisation can provide him an alibi. When the suspect does confess, he will be arrested and prosecuted.
Mr. Big has been used in a total of 350 cases in Canada.8 In three quarters of the cases the suspect either confessed or was excluded as a suspect. When a suspect confesses, he is convicted in 95% of the cases in Canada.9 In this lies the existential problem of Mr. Big. When this method is used, the probability of a false confession increases massively.10 The reason for this is clear, Mr. Big targets socially isolated and/or financially troubled suspects. When the undercover police uses Mr. Big, the suspect suddenly finds a source of social standing and finances. However this newfound reassurance is accompanied by fear. The suspect thinks he will lose everything he builds up unless he confesses to someone with a lot of power to keep him safe. In this situation it can happen that he chooses to confess to a crime he did not commit.11 Despite these risks the Canadian judges allowed the use of Mr. Big in every case.12 This changed when the Canadian Supreme Court deemed proof acquired through Mr. Big unlawful.13 The Canadian Supreme Court still thinks that Mr. Big is legitimate, but judges must be cautious with the use of the results of this method.
Mr. Big has been used in three separate cases in the Netherlands. One of those cases is the murder of Heidi Goedhart in 2010. The main suspect is Wim S. the boyfriend of Heidi at the time. But ‘het OM’ (the Dutch prosecuter) thinks it doesn’t have enough evidence to convict the main suspect. This is when the prosecution and the police decide to start a large undercover operation modelled after the Canadian Mr. Big. The legal basis for Mr. Big can be found in article 126j Sv; the Dutch code of criminal procedure. The operation followed the same patterns as described earlier in this article. Wim S. is observed extensively and later befriended by an undercover agent.
He gets lucrative jobs, can drive on a Harley Davidson and is treated to expensive diners. Wim and his ‘friend’ talk a couple of times about the death of Heidi, Wim keeps denying any involvement in the death of his ex-girlfriend. Later the big boss of the organisation, a man named Phillipe, offers Wim a permanent job. The only requirement is that Wim confesses to the murder of Heidi. After denying the first couple of times Wim confesses eventually. He is afraid to lose everything if he does not get this job and is persuaded by his ‘friend’. He is later convicted for murder. The case ended up eventually at the highest judge of the Netherlands ‘de Hoge Raad’ and they recently decided on the case. They destroyed the verdict of the lower judge and sent the case to the court of The Hague. This court acquitted Wim S. for murder because they did not count the confession, which the prosecution got by using Mr. Big, as proof.14 Without the confession the case was not strong enough to convict Wim S.
A necessary evil?
Judging a method like Mr. Big is difficult. It is proven in countries like Canada that, as a last resort, it has been effective to solve cold cases which otherwise would have never been solved. The clever ruses created by the undercover police have surprised criminals who, up to that point, weren’t caught. Despite the successes, it is also a dangerous method. But do the benefits outweigh the costs? The method is extremely susceptible to forced false confessions. The suspects are promised wealth and better social standing, things that they did not have in their normal life. It is entirely possible that such individuals will make a fake confession to get those things. They are also put, like the case of Wim S, under pressure by their new ‘friend’. But is this a necessary evil we need to accept to catch murderers? In the Netherlands the administration of justice has decided that extreme caution has to be taken when Mr. Big is used. The suspect needs to always have freedom of explanation. This wasn’t the case for Wim S. when he was offered a good paying job and later being pressured by his ‘friend’. Both of these circumstances lead to his confession. The police need to find a new way to use Mr. Big in the Netherlands. A way that is a lot less susceptible to false confessions.
1 Parker 2021, police. Encyclopedia Britannica.
2 Gudjonsson, G. H., Gonzalez, R. A., & Young, S. (2021). The Risk of Making False Confessions: The Role of Developmental Disorders, Conduct Disorder, Psychiatric Symptoms, and Compliance. Journal of attention disorders, 25(5), 715–723.
3 Daniel Lassiter, Christian A. Meissner Police interrogations and false confessions: Current research, practice, and policy recommendations.
5 S. Glazebrook, Mr. Big operations: Innovative investigative technique or threat to Justice?
6 Van Koppen & Horselenberg, Strafblad 2018/2, p. 65
7 Klok 2018 M.J. Klok, Mr Big. Grondslagen, reikwijdte en (rechts)psychologische aspecten van de undercovermethode ‘Mr Big’, Weert: Celsus juridische uitgeverij maart 2018.
8 Klok 2018, p. 8.
9 Glazebrook 2015, p. 2.
10 Klok 2018.
11 Van Koppen & Horselenberg, Strafblad 2018/2, p. 68.
13 SCC 31 juli, R.v. Hart, 2014, SCC 52.