Atif Rafay, a target of the controversial "Mr.Big" technique and one of Canada's most famous convicted killers, has said that he felt "extremely" threatened during the undercover operation meant to extract a confession of murder.
In an exclusive interview from prison – his first since his conviction in 2004 — Rafay attacks the Mr. Big process, saying it "essentially makes you try to be as plausible as you can in your false confession, and that plausibility is what convinces a juror or someone else that 'Oh, it must be true'…despite all the countervailing evidence."
- Watch tonight's episode of the fifth estate, "Mr. Big Stings: Cops, Criminals and Confessions," on CBC-TV at 9 p.m. ET
Rafay told the CBC's the fifth estate that he is hoping to have his case reopened, on the basis of the Supreme Court ruling, though that seems unlikely, given that previous appeals in the U.S. to overturn his and Sebastian Burns' convictions, because much of the evidence against them was obtained by such a sting, have been unsuccessful.
He spoke to the fifth estate's Bob McKeown from the Monroe Correctional Center outside Seattle, Wash.
Rafay and his friend Sebastian Burns were sentenced to 99 years in jail for the 1994 murder of Rafay's parents and sister at their home in Bellevue, Wash. The family had recently relocated from Vancouver while Rafay completed his freshman year at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
The jury at the men's six-month trial was told Rafay was motivated by money and planned the killings while Burns carried them out. The two men have spent nearly half their lives in prison serving three consecutive life sentences with no chance of parole.
Illegal in most countries, including the U.S., the Mr. Big tactic had new limits imposed on it last summer by the Supreme Court, which said the operation risked producing unreliable confessions but did not forbid it outright.
In this kind of operation, police get murder suspects to confess by posing as a criminal gang and introducing suspects to a fake crime boss, Mr. Big, who says he can help them – but only if they can prove their bona fides, usually by coughing up information about the crime they had been charged with.
In 2014, the Supreme Court ruling called into question the reliability of confessions obtained during such a sting, and legal experts say dozens of cases of convictions could come under review.
Al Haslett was one of the originators of the technique in the early 1990s. Recently retired from the RCMP, he can now talk about his many cases as Mr. Big, coaxing confessions from murder suspects such as Rafay and Burns.
During the operation, Haslett asked Rafay how it felt to "kill your parents and knock off your sister?"
Rafay claimed that they did it for the family's insurance money, saying he felt "pretty rotten, but it's tempered by the fact that I felt it was necessary … to achieve what I wanted to achieve in this life."
'I didn't approve of the thing'
In this week's fifth estate episode, "Cops, Criminals and Confessions," Rafay says he was angry when he learned Burns had got him involved with the supposed crime gang that was to somehow influence their case.
"I mean, I didn't approve of the thing at all from the beginning. It seemed like nothing that I wanted to have much to do with."
He claims they never intended to do anything violent for the crime boss, but they were willing to say whatever was necessary to get his help.
"I didn't want to become a hit man for him…I wanted to indicate to them that this is not something that I'm ever going to do – and yet at the same time I'm not ever going to rat you out, I'm not going to do anything to compromise your organization."
In the fifth estate episode, Haslett is asked whether he believes Rafay and Burns could have felt threatened into making their confessions.
Of Burns, Haslett says, "I would never have said I'm ever going to do him any physical harm. If he had that perception, that is something that his imagination could've worked [up]."
Asked if he did, indeed, feel threatened, Rafay said, "Yeah actually, extremely so. Really, it was all a dream world created out of movies.
"It would seem very possible after watching Goodfellas that Mr. Big would simply kill me because I was potentially a threat to him. That seemed completely convincing – in a way that would only be convincing to an 18-year-old kid."
Defence counsel Marie Henein argues in the fifth estate piece that threats of one kind or another are the very essence of the Mr. Big sting.
"When you say it's imagination, they're not making it up. It's because they're told, 'You know who you're sitting with? You're sitting with somebody that kills people. So you might want to play ball.'"