'Mr. Big' confession at issue in Richmond murder conviction
Published Friday, January 11, 2019 5:57PM PST
Last Updated Sunday, January 13, 2019 11:52AM PST
As murder confessions go, this one wasn’t very specific.
Wade Skiffington admitted shooting his fiancé, Wanda Martin, in a Richmond apartment in 1994. His confession was coaxed by an undercover officer posing as a crime boss that could bring him money and a job in a fake criminal organization.
At first, he insisted he was innocent. But some 25 minutes into the interview, Skiffington changed his story.
"We started arguing about something. I don't know, from then on it was just blank," Skiffington said in a recording, now nearly two decades old.
But he couldn’t say how many times he pulled the trigger – or what kind of gun he had.
He couldn’t tell the undercover officer how close he was to Martin, and as for what happened to that gun, Skiffington gave three explanations: it was either buried outside, stashed in a tree or put under the propane tanks.
The gun was never found.
An eyewitness put Skiffington’s carpet cleaning truck near the scene when the murder was likely committed. It was difficult to account how he could have been there given his carpet cleaning appointments that day. There was also no forensic evidence that could fill in the gaps and put Skiffington at the crime scene.
At trial, Skiffington was labelled insecure in his relationship, with a temper. Prosecutor Mike Luchenko told the jury that "jealousy is a worm that will eat into the very heart of a relationship… Once jealousy reaches its peak, there is no limit to the rage one will mete.
The jury found him guilty, largely on the strength of that confession. But the reliability of that confession, and the "Mr. Big" undercover sting that produced it, is now the central question in an application to review Skiffington’s conviction, 18 years later.
One of Skiffington’s lawyers, Philip Campbell, told a Supreme Court justice that the sting did more than just give the suspect an opportunity to confess.
Police lured him with cash and a job into a fictitious criminal organization -- and then scared him with staged scenes of violence, he argued.
The undercover officer posing as a crime boss made it clear that if he didn’t confess, his life could be in danger, Campbell said, giving even an innocent man a reason to say he was the killer.
"The "Mr. Big" confession was the essence of the crown’s case at trial," Campbell said.
Possible theory: Burglary gone wrong
Police didn’t explore other options, such as a blond man who was seen lurking around the apartment building, he said. They also didn’t explore connections between that murder and a string of three burglaries that occurred in the area the day of and the day before the killing.
"There’s a reasonable possibility the burglar was armed. An interruption of the burglary would have been a reason to use force," Campbell said.
Campbell told the court it’s also unlikely that Skiffington would have left his one-year-old son in the room with his mother’s body – and yet not recall that during the taped confession.
"If Mr. Skiffington did do this crime, one detail that would be seared into his mind would be the location of his son. It’s a telling inconsistency," Campbell said.
The federal justice ministry has concluded there’s enough of a concern of a wrongful conviction to review the case.
In court Friday, Skiffington offered a $100,000 surety, and his other lawyer, Tamara Duncan, told the court he could live in Newfoundland with his father, reporting regularly to police.
Meanwhile, the crown prosecutor at the bail hearing, Henry Reiner, maintained Skiffington is the only one with the motive, means and opportunity to have killed Martin.
Reiner told the court that Reiner was represented by “experienced and competent counsel who challenged the case at trial.” He added that the theory of a burglar was a “red herring.”
“There is no reasonable basis to conclude that he has been wrongfully convicted,” Reiner said.
'They set me up big time'
After his 2001 conviction, Skiffington continued to insist he was innocent, even to a reporter from the Richmond News in 2004, who visited him in Matsqui Institution.
“They set me up big time,” he said then.
Since then, he has been a model prisoner, even running a peer group, Duncan said. His refusal to admit guilt has caused problems at the National Parole Board, who usually view admitting guilt as a step towards rehabilitation.
Eighteen years after his client was taken away in handcuffs, the lawyer who fought the case in 2001, Mark Hilford, told CTV News he’s been bothered by the result to this day.
"The case should be reviewed," he told CTV News. "I was very worried it was an improper verdict."
The prosecutor, Luchenko, was also working on another prominent B.C. wrongful conviction: Ivan Henry. In that case, a series of basement sexual assaults, Henry, who was self-represented, didn't get much of the evidence in the case at the time and spent 27 years behind bars before being released.
But Reiner said he'd personally reviewed Luchenko's work in this case -- and it was top-notch.
"I read his submissions. He couldn't have been more fair. That's my opinion. I would have been much more forceful in his submissions than he was," Reiner said.
Justice Michael Tammen has said he will review the evidence, expecting to give his bail decision on January 25, 2019. There’s no set deadline for the ministerial review.