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The tainted trial of Farah Jama, a man wrongfully accused of raping of a forty-eight year old woman while she was unconscious at a night-club

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somali-wrogfully-accused-australiaOn 14 July 2008, a young Somali man stood trial in the County Court of Victoria for the rape of a forty-eight year old woman while she was unconscious at a Doncaster night-club. The man, twenty-one year old Farah Abdulkadir Jama of Preston, pleaded not guilty to the crime. The jurors saw in the dock an athletic-looking African youth with strong features. Eyebrows raised, head tilted slightly back, he appeared dismissive and defiant.He appeared defiant even as the Crown led DNA evidence of Jama having had sex with the woman without her consent. Samples taken from the woman's body were found to contain DNA from a male, and a routine check of the police database established that male to be Jama. It was the only evidence the Crown had against the youth, but it was nevertheless devastating. In the prosecutor's words, the evidence was 'rock solid'.Jama said he had never even seen the woman before, and raised an alibi in his defence. Witnesses called on Jama's behalf claimed the youth had spent the night in question with his family, at the bedside of his gravely ill father, reciting the Koran.

Farah Jama leaves the Court Of Appeal after being acquitted.Farah Jama leaves the Court Of Appeal after being acquitted. Photo: John Woudstra
Nonetheless, the trial was regarded by the judge and the barristers as a relatively straightforward affair, save for one complication, one rather delicate problem. It arosewhen the jury tackled the elephant in the room and asked what the judge, in their absence, described as the 'inevitable' question. How had Jama's DNA profile come to be on the police data-base in the first place? In other words, why was the young man known to police at all? But the judge, constrained by the rules of evidence under which prejudicial information is withheld from the jury, gave the 'inevitable' question short shrift. The answer was irrelevant, he told the jurors, and they were 'not to speculate' about it.After a five-day trial, which attracted media interest, the jury found the accused guilty as charged. At the sentencing hearing, held after the verdict, defence counsel asked the judge to take into account Jama's age, only nineteen at the time of the offence; his close ties with family and community; and his traumatic childhood as a refugee from civil war. The judge weighed these factors against the youth's lack of remorse, the victim's considerable suffering and the thoroughly 'reprehensible' nature of the crime, to pronounce a gaol term of six years, with a non-parole minimum of four.
Farah Jama speaks to the media on May 6, 2010.Farah Jama speaks to the media on May 6, 2010.Photo: Angela Wylie
The next time Farah Jama made headlines was on Monday 7 December 2009, nearly a year and a half after his conviction. Only now, on the steps of the Court of Appeal, the microphones were tuned to catch his words, the TV cameras rolled as he posed triumphant, his arm around the shoulders of his new lawyer, a man with brown skin, high forehead and telegenic grin. Jama's light grey jacket had come off, his tie askew, lilac shirt freed from suit pants.The lawyer hailed a momentous day for his client. After sixteen months in custody, he was cleared of all charges. The Court of Appeal had been persuaded that Jama suffered a wrongful conviction, his case a substantial miscarriage of justice, the 'rock solid' evidence against him reduced to rubble. Photographers snapped the innocent man, euphoric in his vindication. Some shots taken that morning capture Jama weary and overwhelmed; eyelids heavy, head in an awkward twist away from his body. In another, he's staring at a point above the ground, a joyous smile cresting on his face, as if he has just grasped the unequivocal nature of his victory.By the time I got wind of the controversy it was already yesterday's news. I read a report inThe Age before I dressed for work, brain grinding into gear. My gaze lingered on the photo of Jama and his lawyer. I felt a twinge of discomfort, mingled with curiosity. A black kid. Did that have anything to do with it? I abruptly muffled the thought. It was uncharacteristic, and it made me uncomfortable. I believe in 'The System'; I'm that kind of person. I reflexively attribute errors in the dispensation of justice to cock-up rather than conspiracy. Such instances are sad and regrettable and always impart a lesson, but, alas,these things happen.
'The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama' by Julie Szego.'The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama' by Julie Szego.
My drowsy reasoning was right to a degree: no cunning plan had been hatched by authorities to put a young African man behind bars for a crime he didn't commit. But I would come to realise that one of the most confounding, most chilling, aspects of the trial of Farah Jama was that most of the criminal justice professionals in his case had acted in good faith, without even the vaguest hint of malice.Still, on that morning I already felt a tug from the story's undertow. So, when more than a year later a publisher approached me, on a colleague's recommendation, to write the Farah Jama story, I cheerfully agreed, figuring I could tell the tale from a pedestal of journalistic detachment, delivering judgment from on high.I figured wrong. In fact, I was doomed to pass judgment on myself, with the verdict less than flattering.This is an extract from Julie Szego's book The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama (Wild Dingo Press, 2014). Julie is a Fairfax columnist and freelance journalist.Source:

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