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Court orders retrial because jurors not briefed on false confessions phenomenon

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Michael Pearce was convicted of the Jan. 17, 2007, killing of Stuart Mark in this house on Alfred Avenue. His conviction has now been quashed and he is going back for another trial.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

Michael Pearce was convicted of the Jan. 17, 2007, killing of Stuart Mark in this house on Alfred Avenue. His conviction has now been quashed and he is going back for another trial. Photo Store

Michael Pearce is getting a new day in court.

Pearce, whom a jury found guilty of killing his friend and lover, Stuart Mark, learned this morning Manitoba's Court of Appeal was quashing his manslaughter conviction and sending him back to have another trial.

The jury who convicted and sentenced him to seven years in prison in 2012 was not adequately instructed about the possibility false confessions can happen, the high court found.

"Regrettably, what was an otherwise well-crafted charge to the jury was not adequate in the circumstances because it failed to caution the jury about the phenomenon of false confessions which was necessary for the appellant to have a fair trial," Justice Chris Mainella wrote on behalf of the appeal court.

Pearce's case was unusual in that his statement to police in July, 2007 — months after Mark's death inside an Alfred Avenue home — was the only evidence against him.

Police and prosecutors alleged Pearce killed Mark with a golf club in a fit of rage after learning Mark was HIV-positive.

The homicide investigation went cold despite two separate police pleas for tips from the public.

It remained unsolved for them until Pearce himself approached police in hopes of helping them catch his friend's killer.

After two meetings, which included a ride-along and a polygraph test, homicide detectives sent him on his way, not thinking he had anything to do with Mark's killing.

Pearce was charged with murder during his third meeting with the officers on July 15, 2007.

They said he now offered up details of the crime only the killer could know, including marking on a map the exact spot in Mark's home where he'd been found dead.

At trial, Pearce took the stand in his own defence and denied killing Mark.

He told jurors his confession was false and that police had coaxed his answers to fit the evidence.

Mainella agreed that Pearce's trial judge was right to not allow jurors to hear expert evidence from doctors which cast doubt on the reliability of his confession.

Still, the possibility Pearce's confession wasn't true had to be addressed with the jury prior to them deciding the case, Mainella found.

Because they didn't happen, Pearce didn't get a fair trial, he said.

"When I look at the judge’s (jury instructions) in the greater context of the trial, I am not satisfied that the jury was left with a sufficient understanding of the facts as they relate to their role in weighing the truth of the July 15, 2007 confession because the judge did not caution them about the phenomenon of false confessions," Mainella wrote.

"… In my view, this is a case of a non-direction amounting to a mis-direction on an important legal principle which prejudiced the appellant’s ability to have a fair trial because the truth of the appellant’s confession was the key issue in the case.

"A caution about the phenomenon of false confessions in the circumstances of this one issue case was mandatory; its omission from the jury charge amounts to a legal error," he stated.

Pearce has been free on bail without issue for years as his case wound through the court system.

He spent a few weeks in prison after being sentenced in fall 2012 but was granted release shortly after his appeal was filed.

Justice Diana Cameron ordered his bail to continue as the case now returned to the Court of Queen's Bench.

The Crown must now decide whether to hold a new trial, appeal Mainella's decision to the Supreme Court of Canada or stay Pearce's murder charge.

james.turner@freepress.mb.ca

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