On August 4, 2002, Nelson Hart took his 3-year-old twin daughters to Gander Lake. By the next day, both of his daughters had died. Five years later, he was convicted of their murders. However, the charge wouldn’t stick, and after an appeal later that year, his conviction was overturned in 2014.
As might be expected, there was a great amount of controversy surrounding this decision, and just as much regarding the evidence which had been used to convict Nelson Hart in the first place. In order to really understand the story, you need to look at everything at once.
Let’s do just that. Click ‘Start Slideshow’ to begin.
In the months leading up to the deaths of Karen and Krista Hart, Nelson and his wife Jennifer had been visited on several occasions by a social worker who wanted to make sure the twins were being well taken care of. It was eventually discovered that the family was in real financial straits and had been accepting welfare. Because of this, there was some consideration to have the children removed from the equation, but this was changed when the family moved in with Jennifer’s father.
Not much later, in June 2002, the family found themselves without a home and at risk of losing the children once again, but they were able to find themselves an apartment and a social worker began to visit regularly, something which seemed to anger Nelson Hart. Still, neither of the social workers connected to the family suspected Nelson would hurt his girls.
The Lake Trip
Much is unclear about what happened the day the girls drowned, but here is the initial story. On August 4, 2002, Nelson Hart and his twin girls, 3-year-old Karen and Krista, went to Little Harbour, a popular family spot on Gander Lake in Newfoundland, Canada. While playing, Krista fell into the water.
Panicking, Nelson climbed into his car, leaving Karen behind by the water side, and drove several miles back to their apartment to get his wife, as she could swim and he could not. When he returned to the area with his wife, they called for an ambulance. When the ambulance arrived, Karen had died and Krista was unconscious. Krista was removed from life support the next day. This was the first version of events.
A Slight Change
The next telling of the story had a change to it. A couple months after the drowning of the girls, Nelson Hart was again being questioned by the authorities in regard to what happened to his daughters. In this telling, he says he never saw Krista fall off the dock and into the water. This time, Nelson said he had suffered an epileptic attack once he had unloaded the girls from his car.
When he regained alertness, Krista was already in the water. Hart does, indeed, have epilepsy, but why would he hide something like this? He claims he kept the truth from police because he was afraid of losing his license. A poor excuse, if you ask me.
Three years after the death of the girls, Nelson Hart was charged with their murder, in the first degree. He had been under suspicion for years, but a police endeavor uncovered information which helped them cement their case, at least in their books. The operation was called Mr. Big, and it involved a whole lot of undercover work.
The point of the Mr. Big operation, something which has been used since the ’90s, is to keep an eye on a suspect, build a relationship with them and work to uncover information using that built trust, or other methods. Using the Mr. Big method, authorities got Nelson Hart to confess to killing his daughters.
The Mr. Big operation involving Nelson Hart wasn’t particularly complex. It began in October of 2004. Police believed had suspicions about Hart, so they started keeping tabs on him. He didn’t have many, he was almost always with his wife, was on welfare and had only achieved a fourth-grade level of education. In order to make first contact, operatives asked Nelson Hart to help find someone, an operative’s sister.
After that, he was paid for making some deliveries for them. As the operation proceeded, authorities started having Nelson Hart do more illegal things, such as selling fake credit cards and forged passports. The crimes became more and more illegal with higher payouts. Nelson Hart and his wife began to be treated very well by “the gang.” The operatives had gained his trust.
Meeting Mr. Big
In the spring of 2005, it was finally time for Nelson Hart to meet Mr. Big, the boss man himself. It was time for a test. The boss told Hart there was something they needed to clear up. Something from his past needed clarification for one reason or another. Mr. Big claimed he needed to know the truth about what happened to Hart’s daughters. He told Hart he wanted the truth, and that he wouldn’t accept the seizure excuse.
So, Hart started talking. He told Mr. Big he had pushed both of his daughters off the dock and into the water. He then took Mr. Big and some of the other “gang members” to the site of the drownings and showed them how it all went down. His reasoning, he told them, was because he didn’t want his children to be taken away and given to his brother. All of this was caught on tape, and it wasn’t long before an arrest was made.
The Trial Begins
As might be expected, the video tape of the confession acquired during the Mr. Big operation was the first bit of evidence shown when the trial kicked off on Feb. 27, 2007. In response, Nelson Hart’s lawyers suggested the confession should be inadmissible, as it was acquired through intimidation and didn’t represent what actually happened.
The lawyer said Hart only wanted to impress the people for whom he had been working, and that Hart had feared for his life. Still, it was a compelling piece of evidence which would be hard to overcome.
As the trial moved into its second day, another video was played for the jury. It was a recounting of what had happened, recorded by police just a few hours after the Hart twins had drowned. The story was all too familiar, at this point. One daughter fell into the lake and Hart left the other girl there while he went to get his wife. When an officer asks him why he didn’t jump in after his daughter, Hart says it was because he couldn’t swim.
When asked by the office why he left his daughter Krista, Hart simply said he was afraid. The officer then asks why Hart didn’t simply use a cell phone he had in his car’s glove box, to which Hart said the phone wasn’t his; he had found it. His emotion and feelings of guilt were apparent, but this video alone isn’t enough to determine the truth of the situation.
On the third day of the trial, the jury learned of Nelson Hart’s epilepsy, and the fact he had lied to police about what had happened to his daughters that day. They learned he had covered up the fact he had an epileptic attack which lead to him being unable to watch after the girls because he was worried about losing his driver’s license. They also saw Hart being questioned on video by a police officer who asked him why he didn’t go in after his daughters.
Hart said he couldn’t swim, but video showed ambulance personnel wading into the water to recover them, water which was only waist deep. When asked about this, Hart reiterated that he couldn’t swim. Not such a good defense, considering what they had seen, if you ask me.
The Social Worker
When the fifth day of the hearing came around, the jury heard from the social workers which had been assigned to the Hart household in order to keep an eye on the children. The first, Tammy Leonard, told the jury about how close the family was to having the children taken away due to their extreme and chronic financial issues. Leonard revealed the fact the family was some $1,600 behind on rent and was having to use welfare to get by.
When the Hart family moved in with Nelson Hart’s in-laws, the movement to remove the children was halted, though that changed when the family was again homeless just a short time later. The children’s mother, Jennifer, and Leonard had actually called Nelson’s brother to ask if he would take the children in, but Nelson found an apartment before that could happen.
The Second Social Worker
After Tammy Leonard left the social agency, a new worker was assigned to the Hart family, Carolyn Chard. On the stand, Chard told the court about the things she saw in the household. She saw no signs of abuse, and had no reason to believe some may happen. She did, however, notice Nelson Hart seemed to be becoming upset at the weekly visits. He said neighbors had begun to talk about her coming over.
She described one visit in which Nelson wouldn’t speak to her, then threw some dishes into the sink. She said he didn’t shout, but he did seem angry and unlike his usual self. The agency was only interested in making sure the children had food and shelter, and didn’t believe they were in harm’s way, she said again.
As the trial continued, it was finally time to hear from the other major player in this story: Jennifer Hart, the mother of the two girls and wife to Nelson Hart. She took the stand and began to describe everything. She said Nelson had arrived that day saying Krista had fallen in the water and he needed help.
When asked where Karen was, Nelson told Jennifer she was in the car, then amended that saying he must have forgotten her at the park. They rushed back to the park. Jennifer told Nelson to go get help while she worked to get her daughter out of the water.
Jennifer Hart then looked for something she could use to get Krista, and also noticed Karen didn’t seem to be around anywhere. When she realized she couldn’t get to Krista, she began to search for Karen, believing she may have run into the woods. After having gone to get help, Nelson Hart returned, and an ambulance wasn’t far behind.
One of the ambulance personnel went into the water to rescue Krista, according to Jennifer’s testimony, and told her to go with her daughter in the ambulance to the hospital. Nelson Hart went along. It is unclear from her testimony what had happened to Karen during this time period. This is as far as Jennifer’s testimony went.
One Phone Call
One of the things which had folks scratching their heads was regarding Nelson Hart and his cell phone. A cell phone was found in his car in the glove compartment, but Nelson claimed to have found that a day prior. I suppose he was reticent to use it. Were it me, though, I would try anything I could, including a random cell phone I found somewhere. It turns out, however, that Nelson did have a personal cell phone.
When asked about it, he told authorities it was out of minutes. However, somebody from the phone company testified and said calls were made using that phone the very next day, after the girls had died, meaning it did have minutes. Things simply weren’t adding up, not in a positive way, anyway.
The Police Point of View
During the trial, an officer involved in the Mr. Big operation which acquired the confession from Nelson Hart gave the jury more details regarding how everything went down. During a cross-examination, the officer agreed that everything said to Nelson Hart which lead to the confession could have been interpreted as a form of intimidation, but the officer also stressed that Nelson could have walked away from it all at any point.
He could have simply chosen not to answer the calls for jobs, and to not take said jobs. But Nelson didn’t do those things. He continued to take the jobs, earning thousands of dollars and flying across Canada to work for the supposed criminal organization.
Talking to Mr. Big
The officer went on to talk about how they built up Nelson Hart’s trust, putting him on seemingly bigger and more important jobs until they deemed it was finally time to meet the big boss. They took Hart to another undercover officer, telling him that they heard the case regarding his two daughters was going to be reopened.
They told Hart a criminal had been caught who could tell the authorities what happened that day, so the big boss told Hart he had to tell them what happened or else he wouldn’t be allowed into the gang as a full member. Hart’s lawyer continued to bring up accusations of intimidation, citing various things the gang said to him. This would eventually be Hart’s saving grace, but that comes a long while later.
A Barroom Confession
Apart from the confession to the big boss in the Mr. Big operation, which had been caught on video for evidence, Nelson Hart apparently had one other instance of confessing his alleged crime. Another officer who testified spoke of a meeting he had with Nelson Hart at a bar in Montreal.
The officer told Hart a story about his character’s life and the bad things he’d done, to which Hart responded, “I got rid of them – my own blood.” As if to further impress upon the point, Hart then pulled a picture of his twin girls from his wallet. According to the officer, Hart further went on to explain he had planned the deaths of the girls.
Another thing which came up during the course of the trial was what seemed to be Nelson Hart’s indifference to the fact he was supposedly committing crimes. One of the undercover officers testified that, on more than one occasion, he dropped hints to Hart that the work they were doing was illegal. For the record, it wasn’t, but Hart didn’t know that.
Hart would respond that he didn’t care, so long as it paid well. He wanted to earn enough to do things for his wife, like take trips or, specifically, take her to a taping of The Price is Right. On a particular job, he believed he was smuggling rum in a small truck, but said he would do it in a full semi-truck if the price was right, pun intended.
A Verdict is Reached
A last-minute attempt to get Nelson Hart on the stand was denied, with the judge saying he wouldn’t empty the courtroom as the defense asked in order to avoid Hart having a seizure. As such, the decision was sent to the jury. After 16 hours of deliberation, on March 28, 2007, a guilty verdict was handed out. With that, Hart was given an automatic lifetime sentence with no possibility for parole for 25 years.
At the announcement of the verdict, Hart cried, lowering and shaking his head as he took it all in. As he was escorted out, he continued to make his claim that what he told the “gang” were lies. “They told me I’d have my ribs broke. I had to make myself look like a big criminal, just like they were,” he said.
An Appeal is Filed
Four years later, on March 29, 2011, Nelson Hart filed for an appeal of his conviction. The appeal claimed that the Mr. Big operation went too far in its attempt to get a confession from Hart. Specifically, the appeal stated that the methods used by the officers were specifically done as a way to get around certain protections afforded to those on which it is used.
Hart also felt the justice overseeing his trial was wrong for not listening to complaints Hart had about his lawyer and for not allowing Hart to testify. The goal of the appeal was to either earn Hart a new trial or to set him free. Time would tell whether or not the appeals court would side with him.
An Appeal is Granted
On September 17, 2012, the Supreme Court of Appeals granted a new trial to Nelson Hart. The three-judge panel agreed that Hart should have been allowed to testify, and that having him testify in an empty courtroom with video broadcast outside should not have been an issue, considering his tendency to have epileptic episodes when placed under stress.
Two of the three judges also agreed the Mr. Big operation went too far, bordering on coercion, which is a breach of Hart’s rights. With this, they stated, the confession and evidence gathered through the operation not have been admitted during the trial. This also set precedent for the Mr. Big operation’s future uses, setting new guidelines for what is legal.
Following the appeal from the appeals court, it took a couple more years to get to the Supreme Court of Newfoundland, and they agreed the Mr. Big confession should not have been used. As such, Nelson Hart’s lawyers claimed, there was really no more case. The methods used could leave to unreliable confessions, and they felt that’s exactly what happened to Nelson Hart. So, with these new claims, there was nothing to do but wait. And they didn’t have to wait long.
Just a month later, on August 5, 2017, it was announced Nelson Hart would not be having another trial and he was free to go after having spent nine years in prison. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but this decision was announced exactly 15 years and a day after the death of the Hart twins.