Filmmaker explores issue of coerced confessions
Published Sunday, August 26, 2007 9:23AM EDT
More than a decade after her brother told undercover RCMP officers he bludgeoned a family to death, Tiffany Burns believes he was coerced into giving a false confession.
In her documentary "Mr. Big," due out this fall, the filmmaker says Sebastian Burns was one of many victims of a police technique that other countries, such as the United States and England, consider unlawful.
"The movie ... is about the 'Mr. Big' undercover scenario, and the risk this scenario poses for getting false confessions to murder," Tiffany Burns told CTV Vancouver.
"(It's) considered entrapment in other countries -- if it's too coercive to be legal the United States, in England, in other countries where we share a similar justice system -- why are we using it here?"
The West Vancouver sting operation led to the 2004 murder convictions of Sebastian Burns and his friend, Atif Rafay, after Rafay's parents and autistic sister were beaten to death with a baseball bat a decade earlier in Washington state.
Burns, who has worked as a TV journalist in the U.S. and Canada, joined her parents on an action committee focussed on her brother's case.
Burns said during "Mr. Big" operations, undercover RCMP target a murder suspect by pretending to be organized criminals and enticing the suspects to become part of a crime ring.
The officers then gain the target's trust, urging them to reveal secrets to a crime boss known as "Mr. Big" -- pushing for a confession at any cost, the filmmaker said.
"They use threats, intimidation, and money, as inducement. They even use a lot of alcohol to get confessions from their targets," Tiffany Burns told CTV.ca during a telephone interview.
The two men, who were 18 when the murders occurred, told police they discovered the bloody crime scene at the family's home when they stopped by to visit.
During the trial, prosecutors proved the two suspects plotted to kill Rafay's family and share the money from an insurance policy and the sale of the family home.
After months of undercover interactions with Burns, the RCMP taped him in 1995 saying he committed the crimes. Tiffany Burns says the confession was a key factor finding him and Rafay guilty on three counts of murder and sending them to jail for life without the chance of parole.
Although the RCMP are extremely tight-lipped about "Mr. Big" scenarios, Tiffany Burns said they've been using the technique to coax confessions out of people like her brother for more than a decade.
"There's been plenty of Canadians who have been wrongfully imprisoned for murders they did not commit, and false confessions have been proven to come out of 'Mr. Big' stings," Burns said.
Criminal lawyer Mitch Foster told CTV Vancouver people with a diminished mental capacity might be inclined to confess to impress the undercover criminals and their elusive "boss."
Foster also said undercover officers are trained to go at the suspect relentlessly until they get the desired result -- a confession.
"Police have some very good interrogators that will stay there for a day, two days, three days, until they get an answer," Foster said.
Tiffany Burns said her brother confessed to the murders because he was brainwashed and intimidated for several months -- and she said undercover officers even threatened to harm Burns or his family if he didn't play along with him.
"They were making threats ... they were also telling him over and over that they knew the police were going to frame him for the murders -- they knew they were going to rig the DNA," Burns said.
"But they said if he would just tell them how he did it, they would burn the crime lab down and destroy the evidence."
The scenario has been used in about 200 court cases in B.C. over the past 10 years.
"The RCMP are not forthcoming about how many operations they do a year or where they do it ... But it seems to be done a lot in B.C., and more in western Canada than in eastern Canada," Burns told CTV.ca.
The filmmaker said she originally became interested in the RCMP's "Mr. Big" scenario because of her brother's case.
"I realized this issue affects all Canadians -- any Canadian could be targeted, and once they target you ... they can get a confession out of everyone," Tiffany Burns said.
"I'm all for catching criminals, and putting them behind bars -- but ... should we be coercing confessions out of people? Don't we want to catch criminals with old-fashioned investigating, and actual evidence, rather than a confession, which may or may not be reliable?"
"I think Canadians should be aware of the sting, and hopefully this documentary will let people know what's involved and get people talking about it."