The Confession Tapes, a chilling new Netflix true crime documentary series, debuted on the streaming service September 8, and the first two episodes take up the shocking case of Sebastian Burns (pictured above right) and Atif Rafay (above left), two Canadian teenagers who were accused and eventually convicted of the brutal and shocking murders of Rafay's parents and sister in Bellevue, Washington, on July 13, 1994.
The two friends, now in their early 40s, have been serving three consecutive life terms each, with no possibility of parole, since their convictions in 2004 — a decade after the crimes. In The Confession Tapes, documentary director Kelly Loudenberg makes a compelling case that Burns and Rafay are innocent of the horrifying murders.
The remainder of this article may contain SPOILERS for Episodes 1 and 2 of The Confession Tapes. Though the facts of the case are a matter of public record, readers unfamiliar with the story may want to stop reading and come back to this article after watching the two-part episode, titled "True East."
But if they didn't do it, why did Burns and Rafay confess, apparently in great detail, to the crimes? Who would confess to a crime — particularly a gruesome triple murder — that he did not commit?
False confessions are the theme of the entire Confession Tapes series, with each episode documenting a case in which confessions were obtained by police using questionable and even blatantly deceptive methods — calling into doubt the guilt of the suspects who often end up convicted and sentenced on the basis of their confessions alone.
The surprising conclusion viewers may draw from the series is that false confessions are much more common than generally believed. In the case of Burns and Rafay, their confessions were elicited by undercover detectives from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) — Canada's equivalent of the United States FBI — using a controversial technique known as "Mr. Big," a method that was and remains illegal in the United States.
The undercover investigators posed as Mafia mobsters, attempting to recruit the two desperate and naive young men — whose lives had already been effectively ruined by the murder accusations — into their enterprise. But the phony mobsters told Burns and Rafay that first, they needed to know everything about their involvement in the murders.
According to Innocence Project expert Ken Klonsky, who has taken up the Burns and Rafay case, Burns — who was approached first — denied repeatedly that he was in any way involved with the savage triple murder.
"Their confessions to the RCMP mobsters took many months of heavy handed interviews to obtain," Klonsky wrote in a blog post about the case.
"No juror was shown video evidence of Sebastian's constant denials that he had anything to do with the crime, while the RCMP has disposed of almost the entire taped interrogation. What remains are the sessions that implicate Burns and Rafay."Burns finally "confessed" to the men he believed were mobsters, constructing a story from what he had absorbed from news media accounts of the killings, according to Klonsky. Rafay mainly echoed his friend's "confessions."
According to Klonsky, outside of the supposed confessions, "no hard or scientifically gathered evidence ties (Burns and Rafay) to the crime." Despite the fact that Rafay's family members were killed in extraordinarily violent fashion — the killer mercilessly bludgeoning the three to death with a baseball bat — no traces of blood or other evidence of the crime were found on either suspect despite five days of forensic testing.
Since 2015, despite losing their final appeal, Rafay has fought to have the case reopened saying that the RCMP investigators whom he believed were organized crime members pressured him into the confessions with their threatening demeanor.
"It would seem very possible after watching Goodfellas that Mr. Big would simply kill me because I was potentially a threat to him," Rafay said in a 2015 interview with Canadian television.
"That seemed completely convincing – in a way that would only be convincing to an 18-year-old kid."In addition to the lack of physical evidence against them, Rafay and Burns had an apparently unshakeable alibi. They were seen and positively identified watching a movie at a Bellevue theater at 10 p.m. on the night of the murders. But neighbors specifically recalled hearing loud thumping noises from inside the Rafay home at 9:50 p.m., ruling out the presence of the two then-teens at the site as the killings were taking place, as the theater was too far from the Rafay home to be reached in 10 minutes flat — even assuming that Rafay and Burns did not stop to thoroughly cleanse themselves of any blood evidence.
But prosecutors simply called into question the neighbors' memories of the time. In fact, the evidence against them was so inconclusive, that it took investigators in Washington six months to name Burns and Rafay as suspects in the murders.
[Featured Images by Ted S. Warren, Anthony P. Bolante/AP Images]