March 14, 2001

Cornellian Murder Case Challenges Death Penalty

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After a near decade-long international struggle, Canada agreed this month to extradite the two accused men — Atif Ahmad Rafay, a former Cornellian, and Glen Sebastian Burns — who are charged with the triple homicide of the Rafay family.

The ruling comes six years after the accused men fled to Canada following a killing spree. Though arrested and detained in Vancouver, B.C., Canada had previously refused to allowed the two men to be sentenced in the United States — and possibly face the death penalty.

Canada abolished capital punishment in 1976. In February, the Supreme Court of Canada gave an unanimous ruling that they would not let two Canadian citizens face possible execution in Washington state.

“In Canada, the death penalty has been rejected as an acceptable element of criminal justice, “the Supreme Court wrote. “Capital punishment engages the underlying values of the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. It is final and irreversible.”

Norm Maleng, the King County prosecutor for the Washington State case, announced March 9 that he will not seek the death penalty.

In 1994 Rafay, a Canadian citizen, returned from his freshman year at Cornell and visited his family briefly in Bellevue, Wa., a suburb outside of Seattle. Rafay continued on to West Vancouver where he visited high school friends.

Burns was one of these friends, an honor student with Rafay in high school. On July 7, 1994, Rafay and Sebastian traveled by bus back to Bellevue.

Within a week, in the early hours of July 13, Rafay’s father, mother and sister lay beaten to death by an aluminum baseball bat. The motive for murder was determined to be a $400,000 life insurance policy and the worth of the family home.

Tariq Rafay, the former Cornellian’s father, was attacked in his bed. He was found in blood-soaked pajamas with blood covering the walls and ceiling in his master bedroom. His wife, Sultana Rafay, was found lying face down in the lower level of the three story split-level house, a shawl covering her head.

Their 19-year-old autistic daughter, Basma Rafay, was attacked in her bed as well; the injuries to her hands, wrists and forearms show that a struggle occurred. She was rushed to an area hospital but because of the extensive blows to her head, she soon died.

Rafay and Burns soon fled to Canada. In July 1995 they were arrested in Vancouver, where they remain in custody.

“While I take issue with the notion that an offender can commit murder in Washington state and then flee to Canada to seek the protection of Canadian laws, I also have an interest in seeing these men brought to justice,” Maleng told the Seattle Times.

Maleng has previously never made clear whether he was going to seek capital punishment against Rafay and Burns since he first charged the two men in 1995. His announcement comes three weeks after the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling.

Both accused men could be extradited and awaiting trial in the King County jail by the end of March.

“This case is just so tragic and bazaar. The public perception of murderers are that they are either psychos, guys from the backwoods who have long running disputes with neighbors or gang members; they are not Ivy League students,” said Mike Moschella ’02, president of the College Democrats.

“With all the immense brutality of the murder, that was obviously not accidental; it just makes you realize people are capable of anything. Even a Cornell student,” he said.

Both accused men are now 25 years old and, if convicted, will serve life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

“I know the prosecutor was compromising simply to bring them to justice, but we should remember this is such a heinous crime, murdering three innocent people including an autistic sister is just disgraceful,” said Ray Beninato ’03 , treasurer of both the Cornell Review and College Republicans. “They should get our ultimate punishment, the death penalty. They should be prosecuted under our laws.”

The case has aroused many international debates over capital punishment.

Amnesty International has argued that Canadians should not have to suffer a punishment that is not currently endorsed by their own country.

Countries around the world have taken notice of the controversial case and made their opinions clear. Lawyers for the Italian senate, provoked by the case, initiated a global mission to abolish the death penalty.

“Canada is simply standing up against the death penalty. Simply exhibiting the international norm, the norm which makes sure none of their citizens are put to death,” Moschella said.

“In terms of international rights ,the U.S. is an odd ball to still ask for this punishment,” he said.

Beninato explained that Canada should have turned the accused over long ago. “Canada should let us prosecute in the way we choose because they committed a crime in our country and we would do the same for them,” he said.

Archived article by Julia Macdonald