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An unlikely killer

How could 'gentle' artist confess to such a brutal crime?

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Michael Pearce was convicted of the Jan. 17, 2007, killing of Stuart Mark in this house on Alfred Avenue.

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. Photo Store

Yes, a jury has convicted Michael Pearce for killing his friend and occasional lover.

But that fact doesn't end (for me anyways) the tautological mystery of this case: namely, that Michael Lynn Pearce was the person convicted of perpetrating an act of such brutal violence on Stuart Mark.

Given his personal background, general demeanour and psychological makeup, Pearce seems to be a very unlikely killer.

Even the judge who handed him seven years in prison for manslaughter suggested this was the case.

"Considering the descriptions of Mr. Pearce by his friends and family, and the report of the psychologist, it is difficult to believe that he could have committed an act of such violence," Court of Queen's Bench Justice Shawn Greenberg said in her sentencing decision over a year ago.

Pearce grew up in a stable, ultra-Christian environment. He had a steady work history and zero history whatsoever of conflict with the law. He's described by those who know him as a "gentle person" and a talented artist. He doesn't have a history of drinking or doing drugs.

It really boggles me: How is it that this man became a rageful killer?

But the verdict's the verdict, and in reality, the jury wasn't left with much choice.

After all, Pearce, despite his denials at trial, confessed. On video. To police officers under charge and caution. Right?

Yes, that's true. But that's not even close to being the whole story in a case where there was no forensic evidence or eyewitnesses. There was only Pearce.

A brief review of the facts: Stuart Mark, 36, was found bludgeoned to death inside the living room of his home at 1126 Alfred Avenue on Jan. 17, 2007. There was not a lot of blood near his body, but there was blood spattered on furniture, walls and ceilings of the room. Two golf clubs lay across the kitchen sink with no visible blood on them.

A broken golf club shaft with blood on it was found in a golf bag near the sink. A bloodied club head was located between the living room couch and a wall. Another bloodied club head was also discovered in the room. It was determined that these golf clubs -- plural -- were the weapons used to kill Mark. The rear door of the home was unlocked.

The case went cold for lack of evidence despite two police pleas for information.

That is, until July 8 of that year, when Pearce first approached police. He said he had read a media release and believed he had information for them.

Two homicide detectives took him for a drive on the chance he'd point out a gas station relevant to the investigation, but he picked out the wrong one. There are police notes of this interaction. He was not deemed a suspect and driven home.

On July 10, Pearce voluntarily took a polygraph examination at the behest of police, passing it with flying colours. In pre-trial testimony jurors never heard about, one officer described Pearce as "eager" to take the test.

"I'm going to tell investigators that you're not involved in this at all," the polygraph examiner told him at the conclusion of the test. He had not demonstrated he knew what the weapon was that killed Mark.

Unusually, jurors were shown the video of the polygraph, as it was deemed necessary to understand the context of what would happen a few days later.

The viewing came with a major caution from Greenberg, however: they must disregard the examiner's conclusions as to Pearce's guilt or, as it appeared, innocence. It was their job alone to decide that.

On July 15, Pearce again turned up at the police station, insisting he be allowed to talk more with investigators. He brought with him a "list of memories" and disclosed he had taken a quantity of Tylenol 3 pills and went to hospital for treatment the night before.

Curiously, he travelled to the Public Safety Building that day on his bike instead of driving and had apparently pre-paid his rent prior to this meeting. At trial, Pearce's testimony about the pill-taking, hospital visit and treatment he received was inconsistent.

He and the two investigators started talking at 11 a.m., again off camera, with one officer taking notes. In the discussion, Pearce now remembered seeing Mark at his home on Jan. 13 and having a verbal dispute because Mark revealed he had contracted HIV and had a sore on his finger that wouldn't heal.

Around 12:15 p.m., everything had changed and Pearce was under arrest for murder. Just prior to this major and sudden development -- in an effort to understand him better -- police had asked him to draw a floor plan of Mark's house and where the fight occurred. He did and marked where the dispute had ended.

The mark was where the victim's body had been found. Greenberg, in her review of the testimony, said Pearce admitted he might have hit Mark and that he did something bad.

Again: There is no video or verbatim recording of this crucial 45-minute exchange with police. Pearce was then put in an interview room and, with the tape rolling, taken through a fairly protracted interview session, in which police coax from him details about the fatal dispute.

Dozens of times, Pearce tells them he may be "making stuff up," that he didn't remember details.

"I felt like they were coercing me to say stuff," Pearce said in his own defence at trial. The jury clearly disbelieved him, despite his defence lawyer's argument that Pearce was simply reciting back to police details they had essentially leaked to him during their time together.

As part of pre-trial wrangling, Pearce's defence team produced two reports from psychological experts that cast doubt on the validity of his confession, and sheds more light on why it is Pearce transforming into a killer appears extraordinary given his background and personality.

Dr. Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto described Pearce as "introverted" and "extremely agreeable" and concluded he was subjected to an "extremely leading" interrogation. At the time the report was written, he hadn't met Pearce, but reviewed case materials, including Pearce's confession.

The other report, authored by Dr. Timothy Moore of York University, was not a psychological assessment but a review of the reliability of Pearce's confession. The report concludes any statements made to police were "extremely unreliable," and that Pearce was "over-cooperative" due to his "extreme agreeableness" and "intimidated by authority to the point where he neglects his own safety."

Greenberg blocked it from being introduced at trial. She gave cogent and lengthy reasons for doing this, ultimately concluding the report "read like that of an advocate rather than an impartial expert."

Dr. Peterson was allowed to testify in a limited way, on the issue of repressed memory. But his evidence was specifically focused to not interfere with the jury's quest to answer the ultimate issue at trial: Pearce's credibility and whether or not his denials of responsibility for killing Mark rang true.

We know what they decided.

 

Tomorrow, Pearce returns to court to fight in front of the Manitoba Court of Appeal in hopes of overturning his conviction.

It's no small matter, and all sides admit the issues being raised by Pearce are complex ones.

Among the many legal errors he claims were made at his trial were the decisions to allow his confession into evidence, the ruling that Dr. Moore's expert testimony was off-limits and the fact his lawyers were barred from presenting theories about so-called "third-party suspects."

I'm not going to tell you I believe Pearce was wrongfully convicted. There's simply not enough space in this column to fully flesh out all the nuances of this case that suggest otherwise.

But I'm not shy to admit that looking at everything as a whole, I'm left in significant doubt.

I'm still grappling with how this man -- given where he came from and the issues he has -- could commit a killing so brutal.

james.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 15, 2013 A8

History

Updated on Sunday, December 15, 2013 at 11:11 AM CST: Picture of house added.

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