Joining the police force is not a move to be taken lightly. Police people need to be ready to deal with anything, and will often be interacting with the public in what may be some of the worst moments of their lives, not conditions under which many of us shine. As well as seeing some of the worst behaviour which humanity can offer up. It’s not a given that anyone who joins the police would have to take on a long-term acting gig, but it does happen. We’ve all seen it on many TV shows, the female cop who has to pretend to be a sex worker for a while. The male cop who may go undercover in a gang. In the podcast Mr Lyttle meets Mr Big we’re hearing about uncover operations but talking about something bigger, more sprawling and intricate.
What makes the Mr Big Sting different from those other examples is the dedication which the police put into it. When they find someone who they are pretty convinced has committed a crime, but do not have enough evidence to arrest them and take them to court, Mr Big comes into play. The central example in this podcast Mr Lyttle meet Mr Big was a case from New Zealand.
Brett Hall a drug dealer had been murdered, and police suspected his friend David Lyttle was the one who did it. So they started an elaborate ruse to try to gain a confession. There is a prize give away for taking part in a survey, and David wins, he gets a fishing trip. On the fishing trip he meets another man and they get on really well. Everything feels good. They get on so well this man indicates that David could possibly be the kind of person one of his friends is looking for for a job.
It seems like easy money and David does it. Then come more jobs, all well paid, but it’s not just the job. David is taken out to fancy resturants, taken on holidays, the gang welcome him into their midst all the time telling him that he’s a great guy. David carries on doing jobs, thinking he has found a community like family and as time goes buy the gang members tell David that he could get the nod for a permeant job, with the cars, the holidays the good life that entails. The only thing is David has to be completely honest with the boss before he can get the nod. And they mean completely honest. The boss has a dirty cop on the payroll and he will find out everything the police believe David is guilty of. So if David is honest about what he has done, and also crucially where the bodies are buried, the boss will not only accept him, but will help him get rid of evidence.
It all feels too good to be true, because it is. It’s essentially the first twenty minutes of Godfella’s, which is unequivocally the best gangster film of all time. It takes an inordinate amount of acting skill from the police, and must cost a lot of money to pull off. However the big question that surrounds the Mr Big Sting is, is it fair? Are you actuly likely to get a safe conviction out of it? Only three countries in the world operate Mr Big, Canada, where it originated, and Australia and New Zealand. In Australia and New Zealand these operations have been held up by the courts.
It feels unlikely that any such procedure would come to the UK. Mainly because I can remember the conviction of Colin Stagg. Rachel Nickell, was only twenty-three when she was stabbed to death on Wimbledon Common, and the murder was considered more horrific and stuck in the public imagination because she was killed in front of her two year-old son. A psychologist made a profile of who they thought the murderer would be. After a tip of to Crimewatch, a programme which now is no longer broadcast, but used to appeal to the public for help in catching criminals, Colin Stagg is identified as a possible suspect.
Stagg was 29 at the time, by his own admission immature and seen as a quiet loner, he walked his dog on the common Rachel was killed on. The psychologist working with the police devised an elaborate plan to get him to confess which involved a female officer pretending she was attracted to Stagg, and through phone calls, letters and meetings extracting violet sexual fantasies from him and hopefully a confession. Over five months Stagg was pushed further and further by the police officer, who even told him that she wished he had killed Rachel Nickel, but Stagg would not break. Becoming more and more desperate the police even plotted to kidnap his dog, thinking Stagg would do anything to get him back. Stagg was arrested and charged because he had revealed things about the murder scene that only the murderer could have known.
When Stagg came to trial the judge ruled that the evidence from the entrapment would not be included, leading to the case collapsing and to Stagg’s acquittal. In the aftermath both Stagg and the female officer involved sued the police for psychological damage, and the psychologist involved was charged with professional misconduct by the British Psychological Society. What about the evidence only the killer could have known? Turns out that pshycologically a lot of people can pick up on unspoken signals that work as clues meaning that sometimes suspects can know what the police want to hear.
Progress in DNA meant that after further testing the police were able to identify Robert Napper as the killer, he was already serving time for another murder, and was also connected to a series of rapes. The Independent Police Complaints Commission identified mistakes and errors which had allowed Napper to remain free after killing Rachel Nickel. Had he been caught after murdering Nickel, there were others who’s lives could have been saved.
The case is now used as a cautionary tale for those who would employ similar tactics, and seen as reason for caution around applying psychological profiles too stringently. More recently the spy cops scandle, where a police officers male and female infliltrated groups, many of which were not criminal but persuing social or environmental justice, and went as far as forming long term relationships with women and men in the group and fathering children. Such deep deception, and the implications it has for their partners, and the children involved shocked the country.
Because of both these cases it make a Mr Big style sting happening in the UK highly unlikely. In New Zealand however, where the Mr Lyttle meets Mr Big podcast focuses, trial judges have allowed the evidence gathered from these operations into trials, and there have been convictions based on them. It does however open up a host of questions which the podcast, hosted by journalist and lawyer Steven Price, delves into.
We are asked if we think a Mr Big style operation is fair or just. I imagine that for many people playing fair with criminals is not seen as a high priority. Here we can look at another chapter from British crime history. A Confession true crime which has been dramatized by ITV follows detective Steve Fulcher, who when he arrests Christopher Halliwell for the abduction of Sian O’Callaghan does not yet know if Sian is alive of dead. Instead of taking Halliwell to the police station for questioning, he takes him to a nearby iron age fort.
For listeners who are not familiar with the British landscape there is a lot of iron age forts. They mostly have great views, as they tended to be built in defensive pistions. Therefore when you are at their top there is a sense of being above not just the land, but life. A kind of feeling of separation from the everyday, which may allow people’s barriers to come down. Over several hours Fulcher and Halliwell talk. Halliwell eventually tells Fulcher where Sian is buried, and once they are there confesses to also murdering Becky Godden. Halliwell hadn’t abducted Sian out of the blue but had possibly been abducting and killing women for decades, he’d even studied forensics to help evade the police.
Where is the controversy? I hear you ask. Fulcher had not followed the Police Code of Conduct, enshrined in legislation and know as PACE, in regards to cautions. Halliwell claims that Fulcher had threatened his family so his confession was under duress, and as it was not recorded we can never know the truth of this. The evidence in regards to the second murder was ruled as admissible. Fulcher is found guilty of gross misconduct and now no longer works with the police.
Like Mr Lyttle Meets Mr Big this case brings up questions. Fulcher claims that the unique circumstances meant that there should have been some lea-way given, he thinks that had Sian been alive he would not have got that information in an interrogation room. Mr Big stings are often used when the police do not believe there is another way to get a confession. At the end of the day, if criminals are caught does it matter how it happens?
From the Fulcher story the answer seems to be yes. In Britain at least there has been a decision that how we do things is as important as the results. We know that people falsely confess to things, and at least in the case of the Mr Big sting if people are having wealth, and status they have never had dangled in front of them, it is conceivable that they would make a false confession, especially as they aren’t exactly speaking on the record. We all like to think that when it comes to these kind of decisions that we would be the kind of people who would stand strong, and not swerve from our principles, not confess falsley. But this is a view point which is a little naive. Price tells us that on one Mr Big sting, a woman who the police were trying to get to confess scoffed at the kind of people who would fall for a Mr Big sting, not realising that it was exactly what was happening to her at that time.
It appears to me there is another facet to this question. While we might say that the police should do whatever it takes to get a confession and arrest people who are guilty of crime, if we hold the rights of those who may be criminals in such disregard why were the police concerned with who murdered Brett Hall? Hall was a drug dealer, and had done time in jail. It was suspected that he had restarted dealing, which means he was probably activly criminal at the time of his death. If the police don’t have to play fair with criminals, why should they care about them at all? Why didn’t they just chalk this up to a drug related death, and move on to something else?
For me the answer is of course we should care about every murder. If we start thinking of some people as less deserving of justice than others, then we start on the slippery slope of denying others humanity, which is not a place where you want to pick up momentum. The thing about humanity though is we all have it to exactly the same amount. No one is better, or worse, we are all equally human. Which means that if we care about every murder because no one has the right to take another’s life, then do we not have a duty to those who have not yet been found guilty of murder? Because when we send innocent people to jail we are taking part of their life too.