Man granted new trial in deaths of daughters
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Newfoundland and Labrador's Court of Appeal has ordered a new trial for a man sentenced to life in prison for drowning his twin daughters in a lake a decade ago.
In March 2007, Nelson Hart was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder in the deaths of his three-year-old daughters Karen and Krista. They drowned while with him at Gander Lake in central Newfoundland on Aug. 4, 2002.
Hart appealed, and the province's highest court issued a ruling Monday ordering a new trial.
A three-judge panel unanimously ruled that Hart, 44, should have been allowed to testify with the public excluded from the courtroom "in light of his tendency towards epileptic seizures and his difficulty in thinking and speaking clearly under stress with a large number of people around."
The court also ruled that Hart is entitled to a new trial because a videotaped confession he gave during an undercover RCMP operation should not have been entered as evidence at his trial.
"The evidence of confessions obtained from Mr. Hart as a result of police pretending to be criminals in a 'Mr. Big' sting was obtained by improper coercion and inducements in breach of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and should not have been admitted at trial," the court said in its 79-page decision.
In the initial stages of the police investigation, Hart told detectives that Krista fell in the water at Little Harbour, but he didn't jump in to save her because he couldn't swim.
Instead, Hart said he left his other daughter Karen behind in a panic and drove 10 kilometres to his home — passing a hospital and a gas station along the way — to get his wife, who also couldn't swim.
By the time police arrived, Karen was dead and Krista was floating on the water, unconscious. She was later airlifted to a hospital in St. John's, where she was declared brain dead, taken off a ventilator and died.
Two months later, Hart changed his story, telling investigators he suffered a seizure while at the lake and could not recall how the girls ended up in the water. Hart told police he didn't mention the seizure previously because he feared officers would confiscate his driver's licence.
Without any other witnesses, the investigation came to a standstill.
But in February 2005, the RCMP launched an elaborate sting operation known as Mr. Big.
Over four months, officers posing as members of a criminal syndicate recruited Hart to join a fictitious gang. The operation cost $413,000.
At his trial, the jury heard that Hart was given more responsibility and money from the gang as he travelled with them across Canada, meeting other mob members and sometimes transporting what he thought were stolen goods.
As his status grew, Hart was drawn closer to those in the phoney underworld, visiting casinos, strip clubs, racetracks and high-end restaurants.
Hart was eventually told the gang's leadership had a few questions for him — questions that would test his loyalty.
At a meeting in a Montreal hotel room on June 9, 2005, an officer playing the role of ringleader asked Hart what really happened to the girls at the lake.
In videotaped 90-minute conversation shown at his trial, Hart tries to tell him about the seizure, but the mob boss interrupts and tells Hart not to lie.
Hart then offers a detailed account of how he planned to drown the girls.
"I struck them with the shoulder, like that," Hart says on the tape, recorded without his knowledge.
Hart, who says he learned that social workers were planning to take his children, then tells the undercover officer that he felt bad doing it but couldn't bear the thought of his brother raising his kids.
"This is just about the perfect murder," the officer says on the tape.
"It was pretty well organized," Hart replies.
"You must be a thinker, eh?" the officer says.
"Sometimes it pays to be that way."
Several times during the conversation, Hart raises a glass of wine and thanks the boss for improving his lot in life.
On another tape, recorded two days later, Hart is shown taking another officer to the spot on the Gander Lake wharf where he demonstrates how he pushed the girls in the water.
Hart was charged with two counts of first-degree murder on June 13, 2005.
At his trial, Hart's lawyer argued that his cash-strapped client was lured into the sting with promises of easy money — he earned more than $15,000 — but was left frightened by the officers.