It's been 17 years since a triple murder in a quiet Bellevue neighborhood turned into one of the most sensational crime cases this region has ever seen--one that traversed two countries and spawned a documentary film, a 48 Hours special, and the involvement of two organizations devoted to freeing the innocent. It all circled around two handsome and intellectual college students, Atif Rafay and Sebastian Burns, who were accused--and eventually convicted--of coldly slaying Rafay's parents and sister in order to get the insurance money. On July 8, judges will finally hear an appeal of the case.
But Konat's remark is a side note. "The heart of our appeal is really the confessions," Elaine Winters, the attorney representing Burns, tells SW today.
That's because Burns' and Rafay's confessions were the key piece of evidence used to convict them; there was little physical evidence to rely upon. And the confessions were highly unusual, at least for this country.
As we detail in our 2008 cover story on the case, following a documentary made by Burns' sister, Burns and Rafay confessed to police in Vancouver, B.C., where Burns lived and he and Rafay had gone after the murders. These weren't just any members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, though. They were Mounties pretending to be high-level gangsters who wanted to rope in the college kids in but needed proof of their toughness. "I fuckin' toasted a guy," said one of the putative gangsters. Burns was later asked to stand guard while the gangsters beat somebody up.
Defense attorneys are asking the appeals judges to hold that the confessions were coerced. That idea goes deeply against the grain of the popular image of Burns and Rafay, who were said to be laughing and bragging as they discussed the murders with the undercover Mounties. Winters actually takes issue with that depiction in a appeals brief, which advises the judges to disregard some of the comments in the state-provided transcripts of the video- and audio-taped confessions. "The comments such as 'laughter' and 'chuckles' are not representative of what might more accurately be described as a nervous snicker," the brief says. (See pdf of that brief and a prior one.)
In any case, the defense attorneys argue in their briefs that a key witness who could expound upon their theory was wrongly prohibited from testifying. That would be Richard Leo, a law professor at the University of San Francisco. Leo told SW in 2008 that he believed the Mounties' gangster shtick would be "blatantly illegal in the U.S."
Prosecutors are sticking to their guns. In a brief to the court (see pdf), they again refer to the "laughter" of Burns and Rafay as they discuss the murders with the Mounties. The videotapes of the those encounters, the brief says, "tell a tale of two casual murderers who are rather proud of what they have done."