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Newfoundland man at centre of Mr. Big court ruling will likely go free: lawyer

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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - One of the lawyers for a Newfoundland man convicted of drowning his twin daughters after a so-called Mr. Big sting says he expects his client will go free.

Jamie Merrigan said Thursday that without the confession wrought from the police tactic he doubts there's enough evidence for another trial.

"I don't think there's anything close to enough," he said in an interview. "I think that a grieving father is going to be released from prison."

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled Thursday that Nelson Hart's admissions during the sting cannot be used against him should he face another trial. Its majority decision found that Hart's Charter rights may have been violated and that there are too few protections for those ensnared in Mr. Big operations.

Crown prosecutor Frances Knickle and provincial Attorney General Felix Collins declined comment while they review the judgment.

Merrigan said Hart, who had limited education and was on social assistance, was especially defenceless.

"The Supreme Court of Canada has already said that Mr. Big is an acceptable technique. Our argument was always that it has to be analyzed contextually, which means you have to look at the person you're using it against and the way in which you're using it.

"Mr. Hart was a particularly vulnerable person that they used a particularly aggressive form of it on. And at the end of the day, they got a confession that was completely unreliable and meaningless."

The Mr. Big technique involves luring suspects into fake criminal gangs to extract confessions of past crimes.

Hart, now 45, was found guilty in 2007 of first-degree murder in the 2002 drowning deaths of his three-year-old twins, Karen and Krista, at Gander Lake in central Newfoundland. He was sentenced to life in prison and remains behind bars at Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's.

Hart at first told detectives that Krista fell in the water on Aug. 4, 2002, at a recreation area called Little Harbour. He said he didn't jump in to help because he couldn't swim.

Despite having a cellphone, Hart left his other daughter behind as he drove about 11 kilometres to his home, passing a hospital, to get his wife who also couldn't swim.

Karen was dead and Krista was floating unconscious on the water by the time police arrived. She was later declared brain dead and removed from a ventilator.

Hart later changed his story, telling police that he'd had an epileptic seizure and couldn't remember how his girls got into the water. He said he didn't mention it earlier for fear he'd lose his driver's licence.

The case stalled until the RCMP launched the Mr. Big sting in February 2005.

They spent about $413,000 over four months while officers posing as mobsters recruited Hart to join their gang. He was wined and dined across Canada as he met other fictitious members at restaurants, casinos and strip clubs, moving what he thought were stolen goods.

"He never had a friend in the world," said St. John's lawyer Rosellen Sullivan. She helped craft the arguments that led to an appeal court order for a new trial which the high court effectively upheld.

"He had a Grade 5 education. He was very easily led and he had nothing else going for him except for what he determined or thought or felt was this brotherhood that he had never had before.

"This is exactly what's wrong with Mr. Big operations."

Hart was taken to a Montreal hotel room on June 9, 2005, where an officer acting as a gang leader asked about Hart's daughters in a concocted test of his loyalty. In a secretly videotaped exchange that was shown at his trial, Hart started to describe his seizure but was told not to lie.

He said he felt badly but could not accept that social workers planned to give his brother custody of his children. Hart is shown on another tape re-enacting on the Gander Lake wharf how he used his shoulder to shove the girls off.

Hart's defence lawyer argued at trial that his client needed money, was paid more than $15,000 during the Mr. Big operation and was intimidated.

Sullivan agreed there's little chance Hart can be tried again.

"Obviously without the Mr. Big operation there was no evidence to lay a charge," she said.

"There's no evidence of a crime. Period."

Follow @suebailey on Twitter.

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