By Julie SzegoNon-fiction Wild Dingo Press
The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama
The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama tells the true story of a young Somali man jailed for the rape of a woman he’d never met, in a Melbourne suburb he’d never visited, after DNA evidence – the sole evidence available – linked him to the crime.
His conviction was overturned nearly 18 months later, due to revelations unearthed thanks to a mother’s profound faith in her son’s innocence, a defence lawyer’s belief in his client and a prosecutor’s tenacious pursuit of truth and justice.
Journalist and former lawyer Julie Szego writes perceptively and intelligently about this shocking miscarriage of justice, crafting the events into a nail-biting narrative that the Age calls ‘a superior forensic thriller, with empathy for all involved’.
The dangers of overreliance on forensic evidence and the flaws of our adversarial justice system are at the centre of this story – but deeper and more intractable notions of injustice are at its heart: the heartache of migration, the trials of integration, cultural taboos, prejudice and gender politics.
‘A shocking true-life story that reads like a nightmare dreamt up by Kafka,’ writes Peter Goldsworthy of this book, which he says should be required reading ‘for all law students, forensic scientists, and police cadets’.
This is literary true crime at its searching, questioning best – blending thorough journalistic investigation with a nuanced, compelling human story.
Julie Szego’s calm, measured but unflinching retelling of a trial gone wrong involving a Sudanese refugee wrongly accused of rape on flawed DNA evidence is full of journalistic rigour and human sympathy. Faced by Jama’s early decision to withdraw his cooperation from the project, Szego pressed on with constant curiosity and resourcefulness, exploring the milieu of her characters in a way that revealed a host of assumptions about race, religion, sex, justice and scientific method; nor was she afraid to hold her own preconceptions up to the light.
On 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 nightclub. 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. Nonetheless, the trial was regarded by the judge and the barristers as a relatively straightforward affair, save for one complication. It arose when the jury asked the ‘inevitable’ question. How had Jama’s DNA profile come to be on the police database in the first place? 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.
The next time Farah Jama made headlines was on Monday 7 December 2009. 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.
By the time I got wind of the controversy it was already yesterday’s news. I read a report in The 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 reflexively attribute errors in the dispensation of justice to cock-up rather than conspiracy.
Brett Sonnet, an appeals solicitor, received the file of The Queen v Farah Abdulkadir Jama two days after the appeal was lodged.
Some time later, after reading through the entire transcript of the five-day trial of the Queen v Farah Jama, Sonnet was sure of one thing: the guy simply couldn’t have done it. The case was a bizarre fiasco. The fact that the young man was convicted without a shred of evidence to place him at the nightclub—no eyewitnesses or security footage, no phone or car records—was one thing. Quite another was the sheer absurdity of the proposition that Jama executed the rape, with lightning efficiency, in under half an hour.
Everyone had expected Sonnet to become a labourer like his dad. Sweating it out alongside his father during the school holidays, he glimpsed his own future as a master builder right up to the day an elderly neighbour was robbed and severely bashed in her home. As a Year 11 student at the time, Sonnet decided there and then that he wanted to be a lawyer, not a policeman, as others, baffled by his sudden mission to ‘do the right thing by society’, were suggesting.
The careers counsellor advised Sonnet his goal was ‘too ambitious’, however, a newly-arrived migrant student, a Yugoslav girl who landed at Chandler High the following year, nursed precisely the same dream and possessed a ferocious will to see it through. The two teamed up, sweated over their books and became the first-ever graduates of Chandler High to gain admission to law school. Sonnet graduated in the top twenty of his year at Monash University.
… As both an officer of the Crown and an officer of the court, it was Sonnet’s duty to ensure the Prosecution exercised its powers with the utmost integrity, to honour the truth above all else. Prosecuting counsel were ‘ministers of justice,’ expounded the Supreme Court in a notable judgment more than thirty years earlier, ‘who ought not to struggle for a conviction nor be betrayed by feelings of professional rivalry’ but ‘make certain that justice is done as between the subject and the State’. If a grave error had occurred, Sonnet felt compelled to rectify the wrong as a matter of urgency. But how would he prove the youth didn’t do it? His subconscious was beginning to stir, but in truth he had no bloody idea …
To believe the Prosecution’s case was to believe Jama to be a predator of extraordinary stealth and cunning who slipped unseen into a nightclub, chatted up his victim, spiked her drink, dragged her to the women’s toilets, pulled up her pants after he was done violating her, jumped over the locked cubicle and managed to flee the crime scene without catching the eye of a single witness.
But then why was Jama’s DNA present?
For three nights in a row Sonnet couldn’t sleep. He lay awake, he paced around. He scanned his bookshelf for inspiration …
‘If you were to come to my house you would see I’ve got just about every Agatha Christie novel in print,’ Sonnet explained. ‘Death on the Nile, Murder on the Orient Express … I’ve read them each about ten times.’
Giddy with insomnia, he wondered what Miss Marple would do. How would the obsessive Belgian detective Hercule Poirot unravel the mystery of Farah Jama?
Then one night Sonnet woke suddenly at 2.30 am and thought, ‘I know how he’s not guilty.’ In a thunderbolt the answer hit him—14 July, the night before.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist