September 16, 2002

Former Student Involved in Murder, Sex Scandal

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Atif Rafay ’97 is again involved in controversy after an eight-year ordeal encompassing a triple murder, undercover Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers, independent film funding, a refusal of extradition, insurance money and “The Lion King.”

The latest development, according to a Sept. 9 Associated Press (AP) article, involved Rafay’s alleged accomplice Sebastian Burns who is under fire after being caught having sex with his lawyer, Theresa Olson. Jail guards discovered the pair having sex in a jail interview room in a Seattle prison Aug. 10. The judge immediately took Olson off the case.

The incident raised the issue of lawyer/client affairs, which were declared unethical in 2000 by the American Bar Association (ABA). Washington State’s Supreme Court approved a similar policy two years ago.

“Rules of professional conduct that prohibit sexual relations between attorneys and their clients are premised not only on a concern that the client may be in a vulnerable position subject to exploitation by the attorney … but also on a concern that the lawyer’s professional judgment will be clouded by an intimate relationship,” stated Prof. Douglas Kysar, law in an e-mail.

Rafay and Burns are charged with leaving a screening of “The Lion King” to bludgeon Rafay’s mother, father and autistic sister to death on July 12, 1994 in Bellevue, Wash. According to testimony, Rafay looked on as Burns murdered his family with a baseball bat. They allegedly planned the murders over five months, hoping to split the insurance money.

After the murders, the two moved to Canada and began working on an independent film. After going undercover and gaining recorded testimony from Rafay and Burns, RCMP officers were finally able to secure an arrest. Canada eventually refused extradition to the U.S. unless prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty. The two were returned to the U.S. last year with assurance that capital punishment would not be sought. The death penalty is illegal in Canada.

Finally, with a trial set for April 28, Burns waited in his Seattle jail cell as Olson, a public defender with a distinguished record, prepared his case. Jail guards witnessed the August encounter between Burns and Olson.

It is unclear whether Burns’ new lawyers will be able to prepare in time for the trial date, according to the AP article.

According to Kysar, the ABA rule was partially instituted to prevent cases of victimization of vulnerable clients, such as clients of divorce cases. However, he said, the case of Burns and Olson is just as relevant under the law.

“Under the Constitution, a criminal defendant is entitled to the effective assistance of legal counsel. Thus, the Washington judge correctly delayed this trial until substitute counsel could be arranged.” The trial may or may not be delayed.

Rafay never graduated from Cornell and was not enrolled at the time of the murder, according to Eli Lehrer ’98, who attended Cornell at the time and wrote about the extradition trial for The Sun and The Ithaca Journal in 1995. Students who knew Rafay during his time at the University thought of him favorably, Lehrer said.

“He was a well-known guy on campus … well-liked,” he said. “There were people wondering why he wasn’t back” after the summer of 1994. When the story broke, “there was quite a lot of buzz about it on campus,” he added.

In the original story printed in The Sun on Nov. 1, 1995, Rafay was quoted on how he felt after the murders.

“Pretty rotten, but I felt it was necessary to achieve what I wanted in life,” he said.

Rafay, Burns and Olson are not commenting to the press at this time.

“In my opinion, the long delay in obtaining extradition of Rafay from Canada simply reflects the fact that the American position on capital punishment is out of step with the moral sentiment of the global community,” Kysar stated.

Archived article by Andy Guess