Michael Pearce and the Reid Technique: Highlighting the Risks of False Confessions - Mason Munoz
In January of 2007 Stuart Mark was beaten to death in his home by someone wielding a golf club. On July 15 2007, Michael Pearce was charged with murder in relation to the death of Stuart Mark following his confession to police investigators. He identified key features of the offence that had not been disclosed to the public, including the murder weapon, the location of the body in the apartment, and an injury to the finger of the victim, all suggesting that Pearce was aware of facts only the offender or a witness would know.
This confession was the only evidence implicating Pearce as the offender. Forensic investigators detected no fingerprint or other evidence at the crime scene. The murder investigation had become a “cold case”, police had made a public request for information regarding a detail of the offence, and Pearce contacted the Major Crimes Unit of the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS), to offer information for the investigation. (1)
The investigators spoke with Pearce three times before the investigation and before he was arrested. Pearce cooperated extensively with the investigators. He provided finger prints, he voluntarily took a polygraph test (the results indicate Pearce was not involved in the murder), and he came forward to assist with the investigation. Before July 15th, the date of the confession, the investigating officers did not view Pearce as a suspect. (2) On that date, Pearce provided details that implicated him at the scene of the murder. (3) At this point, the investigators began a video-taped interview with Pearce that resulted in his confession to the murder. (4)
The Supreme Court of Canada has said that “it may seem counterintuitive that people would confess to a crime they did not commit... However, this intuition is not always correct. A large body of literature has developed documenting hundreds of cases where confessions have been proven false by DNA evidence, subsequent confessions by the true perpetrator, and other such independent sources of evidence.” (5) Due to these concerns the Common Law Confessions Rule, developed through jurisprudence, outlines the rules by which confessions can be found admissible.
The last case developing the Common Law Confessions Rule was R v Oickle [Oickle]. In Oickle, it was said that “the confessions rule should recognize which interrogation techniques commonly produce false confessions so as to avoid miscarriages of justice.” (6) Oickle also outlines an “Atmosphere of Oppression” as a factor that can lead to a false confession, as a suspect being under psychological strain can cause unreliable confessions. (7)
Pearce’s confession was deemed voluntary on a Voir Dire. (8) It was noted in a later proceeding that during the interrogation that achieved the confession, the police implemented:
“a number of different techniques, most if not all of which are aspects of the Reid interrogation methodology…while noting that these techniques were not inappropriate or bad per se, in fact they were useful in extracting confessions from guilty people, one had to analyze the interrogation and surrounding circumstances carefully and with awareness of the psychological traits or limitations of the person being interrogated, to ensure the tactics were properly employed and the subject’s will was not overborne by the interrogation.” (9)
Michael Pearce had his initial conviction appealed and had a new trial ordered due to the manner in which the Jury was instructed surrounding the dangers of wrongful confessions. (10) This issue had much more focus in the second trial in which the presiding Judge spoke in detail regarding circumstances of the confession, interrogation, and Reid Technique. One issue held by the Judge was difficulty accepting that the police were not “deliberately using Reid techniques in the videotaped interrogation. I do not find they could have merely stumbled into using so many of the techniques.” (11)
The concern surrounding the use of the Reid Technique is due to the capacity to cause wrongful confessions. Most police officers in North America are trained on the Reid Technique as an interrogation method. (12) The 9-step process increases the perceived risks associated with denying the offence, while decreasing the perceived moral and emotional barriers to confessing. (13) Studies have shown that perfectly healthy, emotionally stable, innocent adults were willing to confess to acts they never committed, when subjected to the Reid Technique. (14) Evidence Canada considers false confessions to be a serious factor in the causes of wrongful convictions. (15)
Relevant to Mr. Pearce, certain people are particularly vulnerable to providing false confessions during interrogations. This includes those with lower intellectual capacity (16), and individuals who show “an eagerness to please and…avoidance of conflict and confrontation with people.” (17) In the case of Mr. Pearce, the Judge considered these risks and concluded that “as a risk factor Mr. Pearce's lower IQ and that he may be shy, accommodating and suggestible. Nevertheless, the extent or degree of personality weakness or other traits...do not match up with my observations of Mr. Pearce when he testified.” (18)
The decision on the voluntariness of the statement balanced the police behaviour, specifically “emotional hand wringing, vagueness, self-declared poor memory and claims of hoping he was not making things up… but on balance, considering all of the evidence this does not raise a credible concern of a potentially false confession.” (19)
Pearce appears to be an individual especially prone to providing a false confession. He was noted as being under substantial emotional stress. He was identified as having a low IQ, being in an emotional state where he could easily be susceptible to manipulation, and he “appeared anxious, uncertain of the events he was explaining, and he claimed to have difficulty remembering what happened with Mr. Mark. He repeatedly said he hoped he was not making stuff up.” (20) This would suggest that Pearce, being subjected to Reid Technique methodology, would have supplied a false confession.
If not for Michael Pearce also describing specific details only the killer or a witness would know, his confession is far more likely to be found breaching the Common Law Confessions Rule. Issues surrounding the interrogation technique persisting, the Judge concluded: “I have no doubt that at its core, the essence of what Mr. Pearce wanted to tell police...was that he was responsible for Mr. Mark's death.” (21)
(1) R v Pearce, 2011 MBQB 99, at paras 2 – 5.
(2) Ibid, at para 10.
(3) Ibid, at para 23.
(4) Ibid, at para 26.
(5) R v Oickle,  2 S.C.R. 3, at para 34 and 35.
(6) Ibid, at para 32.
(7) Ibid, at paras 58 – 61.
(8) Supra note 1, at para 79.
(9) R v Pearce, 2016 MBQB 14, at paras 21 and 23.
(10) R v Pearce, 2014 MBCA 70, at para 146.
(11) Supra note 9, at para 31.
(12) Saul M. Kassin et al. Interviewing suspects: Practice, science, and future directions, “The British Psychological Society,” 2010, 15. Pages 39 – 55, at page 42 <https://web.williams.edu/Psychology/Faculty/Kassin/files/K-A-P%20(09).pdf> (accessed February 24th 2020). This has been shown to be changing in recent years with many police forces adopting the PEACE method of interrogation, largely due to the increasing concern of the Reid Technique resulting in false confessions.
(13) Ibid, at page 45.
(14) Jennifer T. Perillo and Saul M. Kassin, “Inside Interrogation: The Lie, The Bluff, and False Confessions” American Psychology-Law Society/Division 41, 24 August 2010, pages 339 to 342. Both studies detailed done by Saul M Kassin. The first is called the “Computer Crash Test'' and involved students being told they crashed a computer due to erroneously hitting the “alt” key despite being told explicitly not to. The test guaranteed that the computer would crash regardless of user behaviour, and under Reid Technique interrogation methods, up to 60% of the subjects falsely confessed to the accusation. The other test was called the “Cheating Paradigm'' and involved students being accused of cheating with another student while taking a written test. In this circumstance, there were perceived legitimate consequences for their confessions due to academic disciplinary action being taken. Researchers were able to get 57.6% of students to falsely confess to having cheated when they did not use methods from the Reid Technique.
(15) Innocence Canada, “Causes of Wrongful Convictions: False Confessions”, 2018 <http://www.innocencecanada.com/causes-of-wrongful-convictions/#ftn2> (accessed February 25 2020).
(16) Supra, note 14, at page 327.
(17) Gisli H. Gudjonsson, “The Psychology of Interrogations and Confessions: A Handbook”, Wiley Series in the Psychology of Crime, Policing and Law, 2003 at page 154 <http://www.al-edu.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Gudjonsson-The-Psychology-of-Interrogations-and-Confessions.pdf> (accessed February 24, 2020).
(18) Supra note 9, at para 84.
(19) Ibid, at para 85.
(20) Ibid, at para 21.
(21) Ibid, at para 87.