Case of Iranian on death row raises reasonable doubt about U.S. justice
Posted by Bill Conroy – August 1, 2006 at 12:27 am
Hooman Ashkan Panah, an Iranian citizen who moved to the United States shortly before finishing high school, has been locked up on death row in San Quentin State Prison in California since 1995.
He was convicted of sexually assaulting and murdering an 8-year-old girl.
Police found the girl in a suitcase in the closet of an apartment that Ashkan Panah shared with his mother in the upscale Woodland Hills community in Los Angeles.
Ashkan Panah, who was 22 and attending a community college at the time of the murder in late November 1993, claims he is an innocent man.
But so do many dead men walking.
So it is no surprise that the mainstream press has not taken a hard look at the case since Ashkan Panah’s trial played out in 1994, resulting in a death sentence in March 1995.
Under California law, death sentence verdicts are automatically appealed to the California Supreme Court. In Ashkan Panah’s case, the court upheld the jury’s verdict in a ruling issued in March 2005.
That result could only have further confirmed the mainstream media’s “objective” slant that his impending execution is a matter of the U.S. legal system working in the cause of blind justice.
In reality, though, the courts and the media are under great pressure to turn a deaf ear to the facts in the face of the fury of vengeance. And a case involving the murder of a child can easily blur the line between the pursuit of justice and the exacting of vengeance, particularly when the task is put to an all-too imperfect, even corrupted, system.
Though Ashkan Panah’s conviction sounds like an open-and-shut case — after all, the body was found in his apartment — if you are willing to open your mind to some new facts, you may begin to question where the line has been drawn in his case.
On the morning of Saturday, Nov. 20, 1993, Ashkan Panah was asleep in his bedroom on the second level of an apartment unit in Woodland Hills. His mother, Mehri Monfared, also was in the apartment, preparing to leave for an appointment.
Sometime that morning, Lori Parker, then separated from her husband, Edward, dropped off her daughter, Nicole, and her son Casey, at their father’s apartment — which was located across a courtyard from Ashkan Panah’s apartment.
Sometime around 11:00 a.m., Monfared left the apartment.
At about the same time, Nicole asked her father for a glove and softball. A short time later, as he was walking between his apartment and the laundry room, Mr. Parker saw his daughter throwing the ball against an elevator. He told his daughter to be back to the apartment by noon.
That was the last time he saw his daughter.
The precise time of Nicole’s disappearance is key, and now in dispute as a result of new evidence uncovered by Ashkan Panah and his attorney.
At about 11:15 a.m., Nicole was seen by a witness talking to a stranger near the door of Ashkan Panah’s apartment. That stranger was not Ashkan Panah.
Mr. Parker and the prosecution claim Nicole was last seen by her father as late as 11:40 a.m. — well after she ran into the stranger.
However, Ashkan Panah’s attorney claims that evidence obtained from the prosecution after his client was convicted now offers proof that Nicole was last seen at 11:15 a.m. — at about the same time she encountered the stranger near the door of Ashkan Panah’s apartment.
After realizing that Nicole was missing — sometime between 11:15 a.m. and 11:40 a.m., Mr. Parker begins searching the apartment complex frantically for his daughter.
After failing to locate her, at about 12:30 p.m., Mr. Parker called his wife to let her know he could not find their daughter. Mr. Parker then began knocking on doors at the apartment complex, looking for Nicole.
He knocked on Ashkan Panah’s door shortly before 1:00 p.m.
“He [Ashkan Panah] was wearing pants and a light colored T-shirt. He stepped out a bit while he stood in the doorway, keeping the door open,” Mr. Parker states in the transcript of a telephone interview released by the prosecution after Ashkan Panah’s conviction.
Mr. Parker asked: “Have you seen my daughter?”
Ashkan Panah answered: “No, why?”
“I can’t find her,” Mr. Parker replied.
“I then went next door and knocked on the neighbor’s [door],” Mr. Parker states in the transcript.
Mr. Parker contacted the police shortly after 1:00 p.m.
Officers with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) arrived at the apartment complex about 1:15 p.m. and proceeded to set up a command post at the apartment complex.
Ashkan Panah reported to work at Mervyn’s department store at 3:00 p.m. that afternoon.
Sometime between 10:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. in the evening the next day (Sunday), the police found Nicole’s body in a suitcase in Ashkan Panah’s bedroom closet.
Ashkan Panah was already in police custody by that time, having been arrested near his girlfriend’s apartment complex on Sunday morning.
The facts are like the pieces of a puzzle. If all the pieces (the facts) are not put on the table, the full picture will remain incomplete — even distorted.
At the time of Ashkan Panah’s trial in the early 1990s, it appears that some critical puzzle pieces were buried in the vaults of the Los Angeles justice system with the blessing of the prosecution — and due to the less-than-stellar defense provided by his attorneys.
Years after his conviction, through the tenacious efforts of Ashkan Panah, his mother and his current attorney ( Robert Bryan of San Francisco), a series of new puzzle pieces have surfaced.
Among those facts are the results of recently uncovered DNA tests, which were performed by LAPD forensic experts and were in possession of the prosecution at the time of Ashkan Panah’s trial in 1994, but never seen by the jury.
And contrary to what the jury in that trial was led to believe, the DNA analysis, precise in its measurement at the genetic level, shows that there is no evidence that Ashkan Panah had any sexual contact with the victim.
The DNA test results, as well as additional evidence obtained from the prosecution’s case files, is now part of a petition for a writ of habeas corpus filed by Bryan and currently pending before the California Supreme Court.
The habeas filing is an effort to get the court to overturn or modify Ashkan Panah’s sentence based on new evidence that has surfaced since his conviction. His automatic appeal, by contrast, was based only on evidence that had been part of the actual trial record.
That is a key distinction, because Ashkan Panah contends that the prosecution withheld as well as distorted key evidence presented to the jury at his trial. As a result, the new evidence — some of it surfacing as recently as several months ago — might well have led to a different outcome if it had been presented to the jury.
Now, you, the readers, will sit in that jury’s place, to determine, in your own minds, in light of this new evidence, whether Ashkan Panah should die at the hands of the state.
Testing the theory
The DNA tests obtained by Ashkan Panah since his conviction were conducted on materials gathered from his apartment as well as from his body and the body of the victim, Nicole Parker. (For reasons unknown, the suitcase the body was found in was never tested for fingerprints by the LAPD.)
Additional evidence released by the prosecution since Ashkan Panah’s conviction shows that the handling of the crime scene itself was, at best, like a Comedy Central episode of Reno 911.
Crime scene investigators removed the victim’s body from the suitcase in Ashkan Panah’s apartment and then dumped it on his bed where it was examined on top of a sheet that was allegedly found wrapped around the victim’s body. Then the crime scene evidence from the bed, including Ashkan Panah’s robe, was wrapped up in one bundle and sent off to the LAPD lab for further test.
The obvious problem with the procedure is that biological material from the victim could easily have been transferred to the sheet, robe and other bedding material either during the examination of the body or as part of the bundling process.
During the trial, Ashkan Panah’s defense team never requested that DNA evidence be presented at trial (over Ashkan Panah’s objections), according to court records. In fact, the judge in the trial, in a special hearing requested by Ashkan Panah, refused to overrule his attorney on that issue. Ashkan Panah’s attorney argued that the DNA evidence would only make the prosecution’s case against his client more damning, court records indicate.
The prosecution, knowing full well that the DNA tests would work against their case, chose instead to present testimony from “experts,” who provided their opinions on the physical evidence. Among those experts was a serologist (a blood-work specialist) with a bachelor’s degree in biology who only two years earlier had been assigned to the LAPD’s narcotics and alcohol analysis unit. He had never before worked on a death sentence case.
Still, with confidence, that expert, William Moore, testified under oath that blood and body fluid evidence obtained from the crime scene were “consistent” with a mixture of body fluids taken from Ashkan Panah and the victim. That left the jury with the impression that there was physical evidence linking Ashkan Panah to the sexual assault.
Following is an excerpt from the California Supreme Court’s opinion in the Ashkan Panah automatic appeal:
Moore’s analysis of the tissue paper found in the wastebasket in defendant’s bathroom revealed that the paper contained semen stains consistent with defendant [Ashkan Panah] and high amylase activity consistent with [the victim]. The stains were consistent with the product of oral copulation.
That interpretation presumes a mixture of body fluids, and leads the jury to believe that there is evidence that Ashkan Panah sexually assaulted the victim. But it flies in face of the DNA evidence, which the jury did not have access to at the time of the trial.
“The DNA results contradict the State’s assertion that the sample from the tissue contained a mixture of body fluids from Hooman Panah and [the victim],” states a 2004 report by Lisa Calandro, the DNA laboratory supervisor for Forensic Analytical.
Ashkan Panah’s attorney retained Forensic Analytical, an independent California-based laboratory, to examine the DNA evidence that was released by the LAPD years after his client was convicted.
In addition to hair, blood and fingernail samples from Ashkan Panah and tissue swabs (described in the DNA report as a “sexual assault kit”) from the victim, the evidence examined consisted of a bed sheet (the same sheet that the victim was examined on), a tissue from a bathroom wastebasket, and Panah’s blue robe (also referred to as a blue silk kimono).
According to the Forensic Analytical report, none of that evidence produced a DNA match linking Ashkan Panah to the sexual assault.
“As there was no evidence of body fluids from Hooman Panah on items contained in the sexual assault kit of [the victim], the biological evidence analysis does not corroborate a finding of sexual assault,” Calandro states in her 2004 report. “… DNA analyses performed on fingernail samples from Hooman Panah yielded Mr. Panah’s own DNA type. … No types foreign to Mr. Panah’s own types were detected.”
Earlier this year, the LAPD released yet another batch of DNA evidence from its vaults. A follow-up analysis prepared on May 25, 2006, by Keith Petersen Inman, a senior forensic scientist from Forensic Analytical, states the following with respect to the sheet, tissue and bathrobe:
No biological evidence exists to support the hypothesis [advanced by the prosecution] that a mixture of biological fluids from Mr. Panah and [the victim] was present on the tissue, bed sheet, or kimono [the blue robe]. It is my opinion, based upon the forgoing, that there is no evidence to suggest intimate sexual contact between Mr. Panah and the victim.
The fact that DNA evidence, prepared originally by the LAPD, shows no evidence that Ashkan Panah had sexual contact with the victim raises serious doubt about the prosecution’s contention that he sexual assaulted her prior to the murder. In fact, the sexual assault established the legal “special circumstance” under California law that allowed the jury to return a death sentence against Ashkan Panah.
But the DNA tests alone don’t prove innocence in this case. Those test results show that there is no evidence that Ashkan Panah sexually assaulted the victim, but they cannot prove conclusively that he did not commit the act.
(In fact, Ashkan Panah’s trial attorney argued that there was insufficient evidence to even conclude that the victim was sexually assaulted. But in the automatic appeal, the California Supreme Court disagreed and ruled that the “evidence was more than sufficient.”)
It is still possible, however unlikely, that Ashkan Panah committed the crime but left no traceable evidence on the victim or on the items gathered from the apartment where the body was found.
However, in the U.S. justice system, Ashkan Panah does not have to prove his innocence. The burden of proof to provide “sufficient evidence” to demonstrate guilt beyond a reasonable doubt falls on the prosecution — a tenet of U.S. law that takes on an even greater urgency in a death sentence case.
That is why the distortion of the physical-evidence findings presented by the prosecution at Ashkan Panah’s trial is so damaging to the cause of justice in this case.
The truth, based on the newly uncovered DNA evidence, is that the prosecution cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt, based on the physical evidence in the case, that Ashkan Panah sexually assaulted the victim.
That also means the prosecution cannot rule out that someone else committed the assault. And if that’s the case, then it also stands to reason that someone else could have committed the murder.
Even with the DNA evidence now in hand, there still remain a few strands of evidence that the prosecution exploited in order to connect Ashkan Panah to the murder.
At trial, a doctor with the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office testified that scratches on the inside of the victim’s thighs were “consistent with having been made by the defendant’s ring.”
However, Ashkan Panah argues that his trial lawyers failed to argue that his ring could not have made the scratches and also failed to call an expert witness to establish that fact. Ashkan Panah also contends that he had not “worn the ring for a long time,” according to the pleadings in his automatic appeal to the California Supreme Court.
No DNA evidence or other forensic evidence, beyond the coroner’s opinion, was produced at the trial by the prosecution to establish that the ring made the scratches. The ring was introduced into evidence on the word of a detective, who claimed he had taken the ring from Ashkan Panah the day of his arrest. Ashkan Panah’s attorney’s challenged the introduction of the ring into evidence on the basis of the detective’s word being hearsay, but the Supreme Court ruled “even if the trial court erred in admitting the evidence, the overwhelming evidence of defendant’s guilt renders any such error harmless.”
That so-called “overwhelming evidence” is now cast in a long shadow of doubt with the release of the new DNA evidence. As a result, any trial court “error” with respect to the ring takes on significant potential for “harm” to the cause of justice in this case.
In addition, an independent analysis of the autopsy results on the victim by well-known forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden, M.D., concluded that the same coroner who indicated the scratches were consistent with Ashkan Panah’s ring also made a significant error in her conclusions about the victim’s death. That Los Angeles County coroner, Medical Examiner Eva Heuser, stated at trial that the cause of the victim’s death could have been the “injuries to the neck or the result of sodomy,” according to the California Supreme Court’s ruling on Ashkan Panah’s automatic appeal.
“She [Heuser] was unable to state a time of death but did opine that death would have taken at least half an hour,” the California Supreme Court ruling states.
Baden concluded, however, that “the full autopsy and the examination of the microscopic slides showed that the sexual assault did not produce injuries sufficient to cause death.”
Clearly, Heuser’s opinion about the ring, drawn from the same autopsy evidence examined by Baden, must be taken with a heavy grain of salt in light of Baden’s conclusions about the cause of death — particularly when it was in the prosecution’s interest to assure that the victim’s death could be attributed to the sexual assault, thereby creating the special circumstances required under California law for a death sentence. It might also be argued that it was in the prosecution’s interest to produce opinions at trial, regardless of the actual physical evidence, that linked Ashkan Panah’s ring to the scratches.
But we also have to reconsider the prosecution’s evidence for seeking a murder conviction absent the forensic evidence connecting Ashkan Panah to the assault.
If the jury believed he did assault the victim based on forensics, then it is an easier leap for them to believe witnesses, regardless of their biases, who suggested he also murdered her.
The major witness against Ashkan Panah was his girlfriend (now ex-girlfriend). Ashkan Panah showed up at her apartment on Sunday, Nov. 21, at about 9:00 a.m. The night before, according to the court record, Ashkan Panah had attempted to commit suicide by slashing his wrists with a knife. The prosecution pointed to that act of desperation as a sign of Ashkan Panah’s guilt.
His girlfriend testified for the prosecution that Ashkan Panah had made incriminating statements to her after he showed up at her apartment on Sunday morning. For example, the girlfriend testified, according to the California Supreme Court opinion in the automatic appeal, that Ashkan Panah said “he had done something very bad.”
Ashkan Panah claims she twisted his words. He contends the words he used were “they had done something very bad.” Panah adds that he and his mother had received telephone threats prior to the victim’s murder. In fact, those threats were recorded and provided to the prosecution, but never admitted into evidence in his trial.
The following is from Ashkan Panah’s habeas corpus filing now pending before the California Supreme Court:
Some people expressed a strong desire to seek revenge against Petitioner [Ashkan Panah], and thus had a motive to set him up. For example, [an individual] called him some time before the homicide stating:
I punish you.
It’s me and you … battle.
Like a man. Engage in battle with me. Come, like a man.
Dude, I’ll f*cking tear you apart…
… And tell your mom the only reason I don’t kill you is because of her. But I’m gonna bust you up a little, to make you pay the price.
By Saturday early evening, Ashkan Panah also was aware that the police were looking at him as a suspect in the victim’s disappearance.
So it could be argued that the source of Ashkan Panah’s anxiety was not due to guilt or fear brought on by a crime he actually committed — as the prosecution might contend — but rather that he was pushed to a state of extreme stress due to paranoia and the belief that he was being set up to take the fall for a crime he did not commit.
In addition, Ashkan Panah had a history of depression, according to medical testimony presented at his trial, and had previously attempted to commit suicide.
From the California Supreme Court’s ruling on Ashkan Panah’s automatic appeal:
In 1984, after the death of her parents, Ms. Monfared decided to leave Iran with defendant [Ashkan Panah]. She had been fired from her job because of her disagreement with the government over its treatment of women. At one point, Ms. Monfared was put in jail by the government. Also, while they were in Iran, the country was at war with Iraq. Defendant was so frightened by the bombing of Tehran that he wet himself at night. Ms. Monfared was afraid that defendant might be taken to war. She also wanted more opportunity for him. For all these reasons, she wanted to take him out of the country. Defendant, however, wanted to stay in Iran where he could have a relationship with his father. They first went to Turkey where they lived for two years while Ms. Monfared attempted to gain entry into the United States. … At one point, during their sojourn in Turkey, they went to Cyprus where Ms. Monfared attempted unsuccessfully to obtain visas to the United States. While they were in Cyprus, a man tried to rape her in the hotel room she was sharing with defendant. Her yelling woke defendant, who was very frightened. The man struck them and left.
We cannot determine for sure whether Ashkan Panah’s girlfriend twisted his words to make it sound like he made incriminating statements about the victim’s disappearance. But we can look to clues about the girlfriend’s character based on her actions at the time the statements were allegedly made to her.
According to court records, Ashkan Panah showed up at her apartment with slashed wrists early Sunday morning. Rather than seeking medical help for him immediately, she instead drove him to a drug store to buy sleeping pills. She then allowed him take an overdose, and only after he was drugged up from another attempt at suicide did she claim to hear Ashkan Panah utter the incriminating statements. Then she decided to call the police.
A case certainly can be made that anything that Ashkan Panah said to his girlfriend in a suicidal, drug-induced state really can’t be considered sufficient evidence for the sake of putting him to death.
The other damning testimony against Ashkan Panah comes from the cops who interrogated him after he was arrested at his girlfriend’s apartment. During that questioning, too, Ashkan Panah was doped up — and, he claims, beaten and his words twisted by his police interrogators.
A note in the prosecution’s files related to one of the police interrogations was only turned over to Ashkan Panah’s attorney after his conviction. The note, in which Ashkan Panah refers to “men in hoods,” is telling in that it indicates that Ashkan Panah was not in a normal state of mind while being questioned.
Following is some of the text of that note:
… (? Did you hurt the little girl Nicole?) Not me — They did. (? Is she alive?) I don’t know — no. The dragon fly in hand is good too.
[Suspect] would speak in a foreign language.
But there are other reasons to doubt the word of the prosecution in the Ashkan Panah case, besides the suppression of the DNA tests and the distortion of the physical evidence that it condoned.
For example, Ashkan Panah points out that one of the prosecuting attorneys in his case was Patrick Couwenberg. Two years after Ashkan Panah’s conviction, Couwenberg was appointed as a judge in Los Angeles Superior Court.
Several years later, though, he had a sudden fall from grace.
From a 2001 Associate Press story:
A judge who falsely claimed he had once worked for the CIA in Laos and fought in Vietnam was ordered removed from the bench Wednesday.
The state Commission on Judicial Performance found Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Patrick Couwenberg guilty of willful misconduct in office, conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice and improper action under the state constitution.
“He lied to become a judge, elaborated on his misrepresentations for his enrobing ceremony and subsequently lied to the commission in an apparent attempt to frustrate its investigation,” the commission said in an order signed by Chairman Michael A. Kahn.
Couwenberg’s attorney, who admits his client is a compulsive liar but says it is because of a curable mental condition called “pseudologia fantastica,’” said Couwenberg has not decided whether to challenge the decision.
Couwenberg and the other attorneys on the prosecution team were not alone in their ethically challenged behavior, according to Ashkan Panah’s habeas pleadings. Another piece of evidence turned over to his attorney by the prosecution after his conviction was a handwritten note that appears to show that the LAPD police were suppressing evidence.
“This handwritten note was found in the early part of the discovery material. It states that ‘all paper-clipped areas are documents which have been withheld’ from the defense, and is directed to Detective Duane Burris, Los Angeles Police Department,” state the habeas pleadings.
Finally, Ashkan Panah’s attorney also raises a serious doubt about the impartiality of at least one member of the jury in his client’s trial.
“… One of the jurors was a member of the same church as the deceased’s family and his children had attended the same school as the deceased,” the attorney states in the habeas pleadings.
But if we are to consider that Ashkan Panah did not sexually assault and brutally murder Nicole Parker, then another equally, or more, plausible theory of the crime must come to light.
That alternative theory must be based on opportunity. Who else would have had the opportunity to abduct, assault and kill the victim?
That is why the time of the victim’s disappearance is a crucial fact.
According to the prosecution’s version of events, Ashkan Panah carried out the assault and murder sometime on Saturday between 11:40 a.m. and noon (when the victim’s father knocked on his door); possibly as late as 1:15 p.m., which is when the cops showed up at the apartment complex; and at the very latest before 3:00 p.m., when he is known to have reported to work.
This line of reasoning assumes that Ashkan Panah did not kidnap the victim, kill her elsewhere and then bring the body back to his apartment later, knowing full well the police were looking for the victim. (In fact, Ashkan Panah was charged with kidnapping but was acquitted of those charges by the court.)
In any event, Ashkan Panah would have likely disposed of the body of the victim elsewhere if he had managed to remove her from the apartment complex.
But might there be another explanation of how the body wound up in Ashkan Panah’s closet?
Here are some facts to consider on that front.
Among the new evidence released to Ashkan Panah’s attorney by the prosecution since his conviction is a LAPD broadcast message alerting officers to the fact that there was a “missing juvenile” who was “LAST SEEN WEARING WHT T SHIRT, BLU PNTS, BLK SHOES, CARRYING A BASEBALL GLOVE AND A SOFTBALL.”
That message was broadcast on Saturday, Nov. 20, within three hours of the victim’s father contacting the police. The message indicates that the last time the “missing juvenile” was seen was “1115 hours” — or 11:15 a.m., at least 25 minutes prior to the time the prosecution argues the victim disappeared.
That is key because at about the same time, according to an eyewitness, the victim was seen talking to a stranger near Ashkan Panah’s apartment. That stranger was an individual named Ahmad Seihoon.
Though a stranger to Nicole, the victim, Seihoon, also an Iranian citizen, was no stranger to Ashkan Panah or his mother.
Seihoon had been living in the apartment with Ashkan Panah and Mehri Monfared for some three weeks prior to the murder. He had only recently moved to the United States from Germany and was an acquaintance of a member of Monfared’s family.
As a result, according to Monfared, in the spirit of helping out a fellow member of the Persian community, she allowed Seihoon to stay with her and her son temporarily until he found a place to live in Los Angeles.
At about 11:15 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 20, 1993, Seihoon was returning to the apartment, his temporary home, to retrieve his keys, which he had mistakenly left in the apartment door lock, according to a police statement obtained by Ashkan Panah’s attorney after his client’s conviction. In addition, that statement, based on a police interview of Seihoon, indicates that when he encountered the victim, he was carrying a “suitcase.”
From the police report:
[Seihoon] stated that he left the loc at approx 1100 hours [11:00 a.m.], carrying a suitcase and a bag. He was hurrying as the woman was already outside waiting for him in a [vehicle]. He suddenly realized he left his keys in the front door lock. He set the suitcase down in the courtyard and hurried back towards the door of #122 [Ashkan Panah’s apartment unit]. Her [the victim’s] brother was playing with a remote control car. As he approached the door, the vict. asked him if he lived there. [Seihoon] replied no. She then asked if he was “Hooman’s” father, and he again replied no. He added that the girl had a blank/staring type of look as she spoke to him. It was his impression that the girl could easily have become lost.
Assuming the police broadcast is indeed the accurate measure of the time of the victim’s disappearance (11:15 a.m.), then Seihoon would have been the last person (besides the murderer) to see the victim alive.
Monfared claims Seihoon did not leave with her on that day, but drove his vehicle. She alleges his claim that a woman was waiting in a vehicle for him was an attempt to deceive the detective who took his statement into believing he had an alibi.
The police report clearly establishes that Seihoon would have had the opportunity to commit the crime and to put the victim’s body in Ashkan Panah’s closet.
Seihoon had keys to Ashkan Panah’s apartment and was the last person to be seen with the victim while she was still alive, and he admits to carrying a suitcase at the time, based on the facts contained in his statement to the police.
That means it is possible that Seihoon could have abducted the victim sometime after his encounter with her, and took her somewhere else, where the sexual assault and murder were carried out. Then, at some point later, he could have brought the victim’s body back to the apartment in a suitcase and stashed it in Ashkan Panah’s closet — sometime after 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 20, 1993, when neither Ashkan Panah or his mother were at home. (Ashkan Panah contends he did not return to the apartment at all on Saturday after leaving for work, and he is known to have been in police custody by Sunday morning.)
What makes this theory even more plausible is the fact that LAPD police entered or searched Ashkan Panah’s apartment a total of at least four times between Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning and failed to find the victim’s body. The body was finally found during the final police entry into the apartment, which occurred somewhere between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. Sunday evening.
Even if we assume Ashkan Panah was crazy enough to take the victim’s body from the apartment complex only to again return it to his closet at a later time, then he would have had to deposit the body sometime on Saturday night, because he was in police custody by Sunday morning. In addition, the police impounded and searched his vehicle and found no evidence that the victim had been in the car.
Also important to note is that the police intrusions prior to the final search Sunday evening included a search of the Ashkan Panah’s closet and also involved the use of police dogs trained to hone in on a dead body.
“Although Petitioner’s [Ashkan Panah’s] apartment and the complex were thoroughly searched by the dogs, they never detected any odor or trace of the body of the deceased,” states Ashkan Panah’s attorney in the habeas pleadings.
So then you are left with the logical question that is key to the issue of reasonable doubt. Is it easier to believe that the police failed to find the body after multiple searches of the apartment (using dogs) between Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, and only found it Sunday evening on the final search?
Or is it more plausible to believe that the body was not in the apartment until sometime after the next-to-last search Sunday morning and that final search on Sunday evening?
Adding weight to this latter theory is the fact that Ashkan Panah’s attorney, in the wake of his conviction, also dug up a prosecution forensic report that puts the victim’s time of death on Sunday — when Ashkan Panah was already in police custody.
From Ashkan Panah’s habeas pleadings:
The state’s evidence reveals that there was a question as to the date and time of death. At trial the prosecution argued that the deceased died in Petitioner’s [Ashkan Panah’s] apartment on Saturday, November 20, 1993, the same day she disappeared. It is undisputed that Petitioner left the apartment that day for work at Mervyn’s Department Store. He never returned to the residence, and was arrested the following day elsewhere after trying to kill himself. Thus, if the child did not die that day, Petitioner could not have been responsible.
A prosecution forensic report reflects that the death occurred on the day after Petitioner left his home, Sunday, November 21, 1993. That evidence contributes to their being a reasonable doubt as to his culpability for the homicide. Further, it has been discovered that rigor mortis was “fully set” when the deceased was discovered Sunday night. It is thus logical to assume that death occurred that same day, rather than on Saturday as contended by the prosecution, again raising a reasonable doubt issue.
(Assuming mild temperatures, rigor mortis normally sets in several hours after death, causing the body to become very rigid. It is normally “fully set” within about 12 hours and then begins to subside.)
Absent all the new evidence that has surfaced as part of Ashkan Panah’s habeas pleadings, the body found in his closet (or anyone’s closet) would be a hard situation to overcome. That might explain why the police fixated on Ashkan Panah from the start, because without employing hard thinking and thorough police work, it is the easiest path to pursue.
But think of it this way. Let’s say you went home tonight and found a body in your house, or more to the point, that the police found a body in your house. How would you prove that you did not kill that person?
This is the position Ashkan Panah finds himself in, and it is a tough one to think through.
Unfortunately, there are no certainties in this case, other than the fact that one person is already dead, and another has a date with the executioner. But absent certainty, or at least absent any reasonable doubt, to allow that second death to occur would only be adding an injustice to injustice.
I got hooked into this story by yet another twist in this mystery.
In 2000, I wrote a series of stories involving an Iranian family in San Antonio who claimed the FBI had framed them for insurance fraud.
The same year Ashkan Panah was sentenced to death in California, 1995, federal agents raided the Iranian family’s business.
In the course of their federal trial, it was revealed that an FBI informant had been brought in from California to help set up a sting on the family’s business.
However, the sting failed, in part because the informant was secretly recorded and the tapes of those conversations, in which he admits that he is an FBI informant, were leaked to the Iranian family. Transcripts of those recordings later became part of the public court record in the criminal case.
Ashkan Panah’s attorneys and his mother became aware of those transcripts after I contacted them to follow up on some shocking comments the informant made while he was being recorded. I didn’t hear anything more about the matter for years — that is until several weeks ago, when Ashkan Panah’s mother contacted me to inform me that a key claim made by the informant in the recordings had turned out to be proven true.
During one of the FBI informant’s two recorded conversations, which occurred sometime in 1994 or early 1995, he claims the following in relation to the Ashkan Panah case:
Informant: “… That Iranian boy, 19 years old, who killed that four-years-old girl, truly he didn’t kill her. She was found in his closet, or suitcase, dead … (she was) six years old or four years old. Then he was charged with rape and murder, O.K. But, truly he didn’t do that … but, to the present time, the court has proved that he has done it and they gave him life in prison and now they trying to execute him….”
(Later in the tape)
Informant: “They did the autopsy … but, they didn’t find any of his sperm on her body. …You see, his house was searched three times before they found her body … three time his house was searched … the fourth time they searched and found the body. You see, he was arrested 12 hours after the murder of the girl….”
Although some of his details are off, the informant was right on the money concerning the DNA evidence. This informant, who also is Iranian, was employed by the FBI and insurance industry to help work stings against suspected insurance scammers around the country. Also, according to court records, he resided in the Los Angeles area around the time of the Ashkan Panah case. So it can’t be ruled out that he had access to inside information from law enforcement sources who might have been aware of the prosecution’s dilemma when they discovered, prior to the trial, that the DNA evidence did not support their case against Ashkan Panah.
But then, like the rest of this deadly tragedy, nothing can be assumed to be as it appears — at least on the surface.
Narco News talked with Ashkan Panah by telephone from death row a number of times for this story.
During the last conversation, he was coughing badly. He said the guards were “practicing with pepper spray.” A day later, his mother contacted Narco News and said her son had been taken to the emergency room with breathing problems.
Narco News also contacted the California Attorney General’s Office, seeking comment on the state’s position on Ashkan Panah’s death sentence in light of the new evidence that has emerged. No one from that office has yet responded.
Finally, Narco News attempted to confirm the whereabouts of Ahmad Seihoon. A public records search shows that he was reported deceased on April 19, 1995.
Ashkan Panah’s mother claims Seihoon was murdered; shot three times in front of a restaurant he owned in the Los Angeles area.
She adds that her son was shipped off to death row at San Quentin State Prison in California on March 20, 1995 — the Persian New Year.
California Supreme Court ruling in the automatic appeal: LINK
Decision and Order removing Judge Couwenberg from office: LINK
Forensic Analytical DNA report – Calandro: LINK
Forensic Analytical DNA report – Petersen Inman: LINK
Dr. Michael Baden’s statement on victim’s death: LINK
Los Angeles Police Department note related to withholding documents from the defense: LINK
LAPD area broadcast reporting missing juvenile: LINK
Note related to interrogation of Ashkan Panah: LINK
Transcript of telephone interview with victim’s father: LINK
Letter to California Supreme Court written by Ashkan Panah’s attorney: LINK
Crime scene activities report of police interview with Ahmad Seihoon: LINK
Excerpt from transcript of recordings of FBI informant discussing Ashkan Panah’s case: LINK
Photograph of Ashkan Panah taken during his trial in 1994: LINK
Photograph of Ashkan Panah and his mother, Mehri Monfared, taken at San Quentin State Prison in 2006: LINK
Case of Iranian on death row raises reasonable doubt about U.S. justice