Globe and Mail

U.S. lawyer accused of having sex in jail

Murder suspect's attorney removed from case over allegations of liaison with client

Thursday, August 15, 2002 – Print Edition, Page A8
The Globe and Mail

VANCOUVER -- After making legal history in Canada, the long-running, cross-border saga of triple-murder suspects Sebastian Burns and Atif Rafay is now making history of a different sort in the United States.

In a stunning development with no known precedent, Mr. Burns's Seattle lawyer has been removed from the case over allegations she had sex with her client -- in jail.

Judge Charles Martel announced the removal of veteran public defender Theresa Olson yesterday as her chair sat empty at the defence table in a King County courtroom in Seattle.

Judge Martel asked the country's Defendant Association to appoint a new attorney to represent Mr. Burns, who is jointly accused with Mr. Rafay of bludgeoning Mr. Rafay's parents and 20-year-old sister to death with a baseball bat at their suburban Seattle home in 1994.

Left unsaid were allegations by prison guards that Ms. Olson, 43, was seen having sexual relations with Mr. Burns, 26, in a semi-private conference room during a "face-to-face" visit at the King County Jail this past Saturday.

Ms. Olson, a well-known public defender in Seattle for more than 15 years, has gone on leave and made no public comment about the allegations.

Media reports this week quoted prisons officials saying they were alerted to the incident when one guard noticed "odd movement" in the interview room. There were also reports that guards found letters from Ms. Olson in Mr. Burns's cell encouraging him to have sex with her.

Seattle lawyers have rallied to defend Ms. Olson's reputation.

"She has worked tirelessly and diligently for nearly 16 years on behalf of those who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer," said Jeff Robinson, president of the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

"She is a fine person and an excellent trial lawyer. She is somebody I would certainly trust to represent a relative or anyone else close to me."

Mr. Robinson said he was shocked when he heard the story. "I have no idea what happened, but hopefully it will all be resolved very soon. She loves her job, without any question."

Canadian justice has played a major role in the lengthy effort to bring Mr. Burns and Mr. Rafay to trial. They moved to West Vancouver shortly after the brutal slayings. Following their arrest in 1995, they began a six-year fight against their extradition to the United States.

Eventually, in a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the two young men could not be extradited to the United States as long as they faced the death penalty. The pair were finally deported to Seattle last year, after Washington State authorities promised not to seek capital punishment if they are convicted.

In an interview last month in Vancouver, Ms. Olson spoke out strongly on behalf of Mr. Burns.

"He is innocent," she declared. "When I took this case in 1999, I looked at the documents and I was shocked to discover information that clearly showed those boys are not guilty. I am very confident."

She was in Vancouver to interview members of the RCMP about their investigation of the murders. With a pen stuck jauntily into her hair, her brightly coloured attire and willingness to make large-than-life comments, Ms. Olson seemed cut from a far different cloth than most lawyers.

She laughed about having coffee "but no doughnuts" with police investigators and about earlier statements demanding that the RCMP "get their scrawny butts" down to Seattle for questioning there.

Ms. Olson had been scheduled to return to Vancouver in October for an unusual, two-week evidence hearing on the Rafay-Burns case before a B.C. Supreme Court judge. The hearing will allow U.S. lawyers to question local police investigators, under oath, about the case.

However, lawyer David Butcher, who represents Mr. Burns in Vancouver, said he does not think Ms. Olson's abrupt removal will have an impact on the October hearings.

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