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The title of your film, Mr. Big, which premiered at the Vancouver International Film Festival, refers to an RCMP method of eliciting confessions from suspected criminals. How does it work? A suspect is befriended by a guy who knows how to make easy money. Gradually he meets the guy’s shady pals. By the time the suspect meets “Mr. Big,” he thinks he’s dealing with the Mafia, can’t walk away, and must impress the boss even if it means boasting about a murder he didn’t commit. In reality, everybody but the suspect is an undercover Mountie. In the U.K. and the U.S. this is entrapment, and it’s not legal. In Canada, false confessions made in these stings have been used to imprison many people who’ve later been exonerated.
It was that sort of sting operation that led to the conviction of your then-18-year-old brother, Sebastian Burns, and his friend Atif Rafay in the 1994 murder of the Rafay family in Bellevue, Washington. You believe they’re innocent? I know they are. There’s all kinds of exculpatory evidence-if you want details, go to Rafayburnsappeal.com-but it was overlooked because of the power of the so-called confessions.
You’re bound to be accused of a lack of objectivity. How do you respond to people who view the film as propaganda? People tend to say that before they watch the film, but not after they’ve seen it. That’s why my parents and I are in the film-to let viewers know that I’m not keeping my personal connection to this issue a secret. You also meet plenty of other people who have been imprisoned for murders they didn’t commit, thanks to Mr. Big. That’s not propaganda. That’s the unfortunate truth.
As someone who’s worked in the media, how do you feel about the way the case has been covered over the years? The police have used the media at every turn. “Suspects fail to attend funeral”-the funeral was two days after the murders, the boys were being questioned, they were never even told about it. “Suspects flee the country”-they went to the embassy and got permission to come home to Vancouver! I wish the media had not merely parroted the police version of things.
Who do you think killed the Rafay family? Dr. Rafay was an engineer who had shown that some mosques in Canada weren’t actually facing east toward Mecca. The police had received a tip, which they never acted on, that the family was in danger from radical Muslims. Dr. Rafay’s predecessor as head of the Canadian Pakistan Friendship Organization, Riasat Ali Khan, was also murdered. That case was never solved.
So you think religious fanatics may have been responsible? In 1994, the idea must have seemed crazy. Today, after 9/11 and everything that’s happened since, it doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.
You poured years of your life and all of your savings into this documentary. What do you hope the film will achieve? I want people to understand how false confessions come about. And I’m determined that one day we’ll add Sebastian and Atif to the long list of people-including Donald Marshall, David Milgaard and Guy Paul Morin-who’ve been set free after being wrongfully convicted.