Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Confession key to convicted killer's appeal

Defence questions police interrogation

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Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press archives
Stuart Mark was killed inside this Alfred Avenue home in January 2007. His friend, Michael Pearce, was found guilty of manslaughter, but is appealing.

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Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press archives Stuart Mark was killed inside this Alfred Avenue home in January 2007. His friend, Michael Pearce, was found guilty of manslaughter, but is appealing.

Legal mistakes resulted in a compromised trial and the wrongful conviction of a man accused of brutally killing his friend and occasional lover, his defence lawyer told Manitoba's Court of Appeal Monday.

Michael Pearce, 45, returned to court to fight his manslaughter conviction for the killing of Stuart Mark inside an Alfred Avenue home in January 2007. He was convicted last year and sentenced to seven years in prison.

Justices Marc Monnin, Barbara Hamilton and Chris Mainella will decide in the new year whether there's evidence backing Pearce's assertion he offered police a false confession and should be granted a new trial.

Pearce remains free on bail pending the outcome of his complex appeal, which questions the interrogation techniques two homicide investigators used to extract information from him.

Police and prosecutors believe he flew into a rage and viciously attacked Mark with a golf club after learning the 36-year-old was HIV-positive.

The case against Pearce, who had no history of violence or crime, is grounded entirely on comments he made to police on July 15, 2007. It was the second time in a matter of days Pearce approached police to offer help with their investigation into Mark's homicide, which had become a cold case.

Days before his arrest, Pearce voluntarily submitted to a polygraph exam and was deemed to have had no involvement in the death.

He insisted on speaking with police again days later. After talking with police off-camera, he was arrested for Mark's killing after drawing an "X" on a floor plan of the Alfred Avenue crime scene corresponding to the place police said Mark's body was found.

Detectives coaxed admissions out of Pearce during a video interview. Dozens of times, he told them he may be making things up, that he's guessing and doesn't remember details.

At trial, Pearce testified he felt like he was being coerced.

The judge hearing the case barred Pearce from presenting expert opinion evidence from York University psychology department chairman, Timothy Moore. Moore found Pearce's confession to be "extremely unreliable" based on a review of it and other case materials.

The judge found Moore appeared to be more of an advocate for Pearce than an impartial expert and refused to allow the evidence in.

That was an error, defence lawyer Gerri Wiebe argued Monday.

"There isn't any evidence that Dr. Moore is biased... he was fair and neutral," said Wiebe.

Compounding the mistake was how Pearce's defence wasn't allowed to cross examine police on interrogation techniques at trial, Wiebe said. That created a lack of context for jurors when considering Pearce's confession -- one which police approached from a "guilt-presumptive" perspective, she said.

"The whole theory of the defence was that this was a confession created, or forced on Mr. Pearce by way of the techniques that were used," said Wiebe. "There are subtle nuances that just aren't going to be obvious to the jury."

Crown attorney Neil Cutler rebuffed Wiebe's arguments, saying the case had nothing to do with police interview techniques, which he described as not particularly aggressive.

Moore's qualifications to assess the reliability of a confession were limited, Cutler said.

james.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 17, 2013 A5

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