- BC Games
An appeal for justice
One hundred and forty thousand painful hours have passed since Tiffany Burns received a life-changing telephone call.
It was the height of summer in 1995 when Burns’s parents called to tell that her brother, Sebastian, had been arrested and charged with three counts of aggravated first-degree murder.
“There’s just no way that anyone can know how to deal with that,” says Burns. “It’s just shocking.”
But what made the news even tougher to swallow, she says, is that her brother is an innocent man.
So too, she adds, is his close friend Atif Rafay, who, nine years after their arrest, was sentenced alongside Sebastian to three terms of life in prison for the gruesome murder of Rafay’s mother, father and sister.
“I couldn’t believe it,” says Burns, who was in the courtroom on the day the verdict was read. “There was no evidence at all to convict them. Their alibi was airtight. Neighbours heard the murders taking place at the exact time [Sebastian and Atif] were seen across town. The conviction just didn’t make sense.”
In the years since the two former West Vancouver Secondary School students were first arrested, Burns has dedicated nearly every day of her life to trying to clear their names.
In 2004, she released an award-winning documentary film that exposed a controversial RCMP investigation method called “Mr. Big,” in which police officers go undercover, pose as gang criminals, and build relationships with suspects.
It was through such an investigation that Mounties were able to get a confession from Sebastian and Atif for the 2004 murders. But Burns argues the confession was a false one, given to impress a police officer “posing as Tony Soprano.”
“The only reason they are in prison right now is because of a false confession to Mr. Big,” she says. “In a situation like that, you might feel so threatened or scared that these gangsters are going to kill you or your loved ones if you don’t tell them exactly what they want to hear. You’ll say anything, even if it’s not true.”
In addition, Burns notes that undercover operations such as the Mr. Big sting are considered illegal in the U.S., where the crime took place and the two men were tried and imprisoned.
This Friday (July 8) the two men’s lawyers will make that argument, along with a list of others, in a Washington State Court of Appeals. The lawyers will be campaigning for a new trial to be ordered, with the ultimate hope of setting Sebastian and Atif free.
The fact that it’s taken seven years for the courts to grant an appeal hearing is frustrating, says Burns, but the family remains “cautiously optimistic” that the tide is turning in their favour.
“All you can do is look forward. You can’t let it wear you down,” she says. “We don’t know what’s going to happen this week, but we are really hopeful. The appeal brings up so many points that were important. I’m looking forward to justice finally being done.”
The family’s spirits have also been bolstered by the support of American DNA expert Greg Hampikian, a forensic biology professor and director of the Idaho Innocence Project.
Hampikian joined the Burns and her parents at a screening of Burns’s documentary in Seattle last week, and told reporters he is convinced there was not enough forensic evidence to convict the two suspects.
The appeal has also garnered support from the Innocence Network and Innocence International, founded by Rubin Hurricane Carter. “It’s a good feeling right now,” says Burns. “Innocence groups don’t just come on board for no reason. They do a lot of research first.”
Regardless of what happens in court tomorrow, one thing’s for certain — Burns will not stop fighting on behalf of her brother — a funny, smart, easy-going man who she says was unjustly torn away from her family.
“I think everyone has challenges in their life and every person has something going on in their family that they have to deal with. This is just what’s happening in my family,” she says.” I don’t see myself as doing anything special or different. We’re all in this together and we all stick together.”