Words of Victor Frankl regarding the Rafay/Burns case.

One of the main arguments against Atif Rafay and Sebastian Burns by the Washington appeal courts centers on the demeanor of Sebastian Burns while he is supposedly confessing to the RCMP gangsters. He doesn’t appear to be fearful or distressed; therefore his lawyers must be wrong about him being coerced through fear into making the confessions. I have already made the argument that you can’t judge a book by its cover, i.e. you can’t know what is inside a person’s head by the way she or he behaves on the surface. You can only guess. For that reason alone, the arguments against the appeal are worse than suspect, they are invalid. They are a legal disgrace.

Another argument against the two teens (as they were at the time) is their inappropriate behavior in general after the killings of the Rafay family. Rather than a legal argument, it was the perception of their behavior in the media at the memorial for Rafay’s family. It appeared infantile at best. Nor were they models of decorum–neighbors found them “obnoxious”–when they moved into a shared residence with friends in West Vancouver. But here is a quote that I found upon rereading Victor Frankl’s great work, “Man’s search For Meaning”.


Frankl was referring to the behavior of oppressed people in concentration camps who are in the category of wrongly convicted persons. They did things they never would have done had they not been starving to death and constantly beaten. They were not bad people but people in dire circumstances. I think people might also give Atif and Sebastian the benefit of the doubt when it comes to surface behavior. They had witnessed the aftermath of a bloodbath which would be bad enough if they didn’t know the victims. This was, however, the family of Atif Rafay! Their abnormal behavior, under the circumstances, is completely understandable.

It irks me when I hear people talk about their behavior as the clinching argument for their guilt. Anything but! If they had been purely calculating, they never would have behaved in that way. That is why, on The Confession Tapes, I described them as “two goofballs in a state of shock”. How do any of us act in violent and completely abnormal situations? Why do soldiers suffer from PTSD? Does anyone really know what a soldier goes through after enduring sights that the rest of us never have to see, like bodies blown to pieces in a marketplace? What would YOU do if you came upon your family bludgeoned to death? You don’t know until it happens and God forbid it ever does.

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About ken

I am a former Toronto teacher and writer now living in Vancouver. I work with Dr. Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter, with whom I published Eye of the Hurricane: My path from Darkness to Freedom (Chicago review Press, 2011), as Director of Media Relations and as an advocate for wrongly convicted prisoners. Other publication credits include Songs of Aging Children (Arsenal Pulp Press, 1992) a book of short stories about troubled youth, and Taking Steam, a play co-authored with the late Brian Shein, staged at New York's Jewish Repertory Theatre and Toronto in 1983. Life Without (Quattro Books, 2012) is a novella about a New York cab driver wrongly convicted of killing his pregnant wife. Gary Geddes (Lt. Governor's Award for Literary Excellence) described it as "one of the most brilliant and harrowing short novels I've read since I went on a John Hawkes binge."

11 thoughts on “Words of Victor Frankl regarding the Rafay/Burns case.

  1. I completely agree. I’ve read so many arguments from those convinced of their guilt based on their behavior. I am their age and was a college student at the time of the murders. Every last guy I knew lived like Atif and Sebastian. Slept all day, up all night, played loud music, party animal teenagers. This is typical teenage guy behavior.

    They DID NOT actively seek out a “gangster lifestyle” – they were targeted and placed in these scenarios specifically designed to lure them, after being ostracized in their community due to the false stories the police fed to the media. The RCMP preyed on this weakness, with the help of the Bellevue Police Department and they really had no way out.

    There is no script to follow after witnessing such an enormous personal trauma. And their behavior after the fact was probably an attempt at restoring normalcy. How so many refuse to see this is astounding to me.

    • All teenaged guys partied and played loud music…. you do realize what you’re really saying is that Rafay and Burns’ (and Miyoshi’s) behaviour then was completely normal.

      Also. Burns showed a tendency for deceptive (abnormal?) behaviour in the years preceding the murders. Evident he had a cunning mind.

      • Yes, I think their behavior was completely normal for 18 year old boys with an upbringing similar to mine (upper middle class, fairly sheltered, carefree etc). Cunning? Absolutely. Does that make him a murderer? Of course not.

        In a somewhat similar situation to Sebastian’s car wreck: while in high school, I (barely) tapped a parked car, leaving a small dent. There were no witnesses, so I moved along and pretended like nothing happened. It worked – I was never found out and didn’t get into trouble. But I was so riddled with guilt and shame that I’d never try that again. Conversely, Sebastian WAS found out, he testified that it was a “shameful disaster”. Even if he DID make the jump from a mischievous teenager to murderer (which I don’t believe he did), I can’t see him thinking that story would work again.

      • The problem with the perception of Sebastian (and he’s no angel) is the way he was made to appear by the RCMP to the jury. What Mr, Big does, aside from eliciting confessions, is to make the defendant look like a criminal. After all, one asks, why would a person participate in criminal misdeeds with gangsters? The answer is conditioning. If you are paid large sums of money each time you commit a petty crime and you can’t get a job because the community thinks you are a murderer, wouldn’t some not take the money?
        I would also be careful about drawing conclusions (“a cunning mind”) from teenage behavior. How many people out there misbehaved badly but were never caught? Look at the new U.S. Supreme Court Justice. No one would have known the allegations against him for sexual assault had he not been nominated to the court. The judgment of young men is generally flawed.
        None of this has anything to do with murder but it does speak to perception that might prejudice someone into believing someone is a murderer.

    • Good article – thanks for the link! I can’t even bring myself to dive into the Dassey case. I’ve been so consumed with the Rafay/Burns ordeal since learning of it that I don’t think my brain could handle anything else.

      So many people who believe their guilt fail to consider the psychological impact, and their vulnerability after experiencing such an emotionally traumatic event. And so many jump on the fact that they were legal adults at the time. Even in Burns v Warner, Sebastian’s habeas petition (I think) – the judges point out, TWICE, that he was nearly 20 years old at the time of the “confession” in July 1995. It’s as if they assume people become impervious to these tactics the minute they turn 18. It’s splitting hairs, really.

      • I’d also say, in response, that in my experience, the 18-25 age range is when young men engage in the riskiest and most mindless of endeavours. It is not an age of maturity. Ask many parents and they’ll tell you the same: a young man is lucky to make it through those years in one piece. At the age of 18, you have the very definition of sophomoric, know it all and contempt for adults. At the upper range, there is great physical strength without the good sense to keep it under control.

        • Ken, are you saying Burns’ school pranks and attempt at insurance fraud were “mindless” ?

          What about his obvious rationing of his ‘life of crime’ with Mr Big? Didn’t seem like impulsive decisions to me…

  2. -He was in high school and was a bit of a rascal, but quite successful and social. Pretty normal kid-type you can find in any school you go to – and that person does NOT go out and commit an heinous, brutal crime like the terrible Rafay murders.

    -He was thrown into a ridiculously unfair, Kafkaesque life – a downward spiral would not be inconsistent when you see the “system” you are brought up in, have succeeded in, and been told is FAIR – turns out to be the opposite.

  3. Heartbreak and disbelief- this is how I was left after learning about the Sebastian Burns and Atif Rafay story. The number of experts giving context to the confessions ought to have persuaded the jury as to the overwhelming amount of reasonable doubt in this case. Apparently missing from this conversation is neurobiological expertise.

    The adolescent brain, and specifically the pre-frontal cortex, is not fully developed until an individual’s mid-twenties. This part of the brain is responsible for planning, decision making, evaluating consequences of behaviors/ actions and much more. A brain in fight or flight mode is even more susceptible to behaviors that otherwise would not occur.
    This science cannot be left out of the conversation if the behavior of Sebastian and Atif following the murders is going to be weighed so heavily. The perception that they were aloof and behaving inappropriately in addition to the fact that they decided that providing false confessions to individuals whom they believed would help them MUST be considered in the context of adolescent brain development. Finally, the adolescent brain is extremely vulnerable to peer pressure. Sebastian confiding in, and subsequently describing fictional criminal behavior, demonstrates this.

    Anyone who cares about justice should care about what happened to these two men with so much potential. For those who feel indifferent, this case ought to demonstrate the fact that anyone’s lives can be taken regardless of innocence.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Kate. The behavior is what resulted in the conviction. They were convicted for who they were or, more accurately, they were found guilty because the entire courtroom, outside of their own friends and relatives, was made to despise them. Behaving badly at a memorial, for example, is visually damning, even if reason tells you that people who committed such a cold-blooded murder would try to look sad and solemn. They were two adolescents who had seen something no person should ever have to see and were not mature enough to cope with it in an adult way. This, along with your accurate assessment of the adolescent brain, was a bad confluence.
      The system will hold on to this conviction as long as it possibly can and Atif and Sebastian will be hard pressed to find a way out. A nightmare.

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