In Australia, a man named Farah Jama was recently released from jail after spending 15 months there on a wrongful conviction for rape. Jama (pictured left) had an alibi for the night, was not seen by any witnesses at the scene of the alleged crime, and was not identified by the alleged victim, who was found unconscious and remained unsure as to whether or not a sexual assault was committed against her. Jama was convicted on the sole basis of DNA evidence — evidence that was later found to be contaminated.
In a scathing independent review of the “disastrous” case of Farah Jama, former Supreme Court judge Frank Vincent found a miscarriage of justice had occurred when the DNA evidence that prosecutors used solely to convict the Sudanese man was contaminated and forensic procedures did not adhere to national standards.
He also found that “warning bells” about the lack of evidence in the case were overlooked by police investigators and prosecutors because they were so blinded by the DNA evidence.
“In this present case, the obviously unreserved acceptance of the reliability of DNA evidence appears to have so confined thought that it enabled all involved to leap over a veritable mountain of improbabilities and unexplained aspects that . . . could be seen to block the path to conviction,” Mr Vincent wrote.
Mr Jama spent 15 months in jail after a sample of his DNA contaminated one taken from a 48-year-old woman believed to have been raped at an over-28s nightclub in Melbourne’s southeastern suburbs.
The 22-year-old was not seen by any witnesses in the nightclub or in the area, the alleged rape victim had no memory of the sexual assault and Mr Jama had an alibi for the night of the incident. Despite this, police went ahead with the prosecution and a jury found Mr Jama guilty.
“It is almost incredible that, in consequence of a minute particle . . . by some mechanism settling on a swab, slide or trolley surface, a chain of events could be started that culminated in the conviction of an individual for a crime that had never been committed by him or anyone else,” Mr Vincent wrote.
I take issue with the assertion that an assault never occurred — while that may be the case, evidence that no rape was ever committed is not presented here. In any case, it does seem incredibly clear that unlike most cases, where a lack of evidence or failure to convict does not mean that the accused was not actually guilty, Jama is indeed innocent on all charges. Further, if Vincent is correct that no assault took place, and there was never any legitimate evidence from the rape kit that an assault was committed, that just makes the conviction here even more negligent and appalling.
Obviously false rape convictions are bad. They’re not what we want, and do a far better job at allowing rape to continue than at stopping it. To be clear, police here initially did the right thing — even though the woman did not recall an assault, women are raped while unconscious all the time. A rape kit was certainly in order, so long as she willingly consented to one. But evidence is not found in all rape kits. And clearly, DNA evidence still has its flaws, especially when a police force was not using sealed rape kits at the time. (The mind, it boggles.)
But my interest in this case extends beyond the horrible injustice suffered by Mr. Jama. Because I think it’s also excellent evidence of the many flaws present in current judicial systems, and the rape myths that allow those flaws to go unchecked until something utterly atrocious happens, as did here.
Jama was not just convicted of a crime that he did not commit, based on nothing other than contaminated DNA evidence — he was wrongfully convicted on those grounds in a climate where actual rapists go free all the time. He was convicted in a world where rape victims who have genuine forensic evidence to back up their claims, and who remember their assaults and can name their assailants, are openly disbelieved and mocked, told that they wanted it or deserved it. Victims who know they were assaulted by real rapists who don’t have alibis walk away without punishment, vindicated in the public eye and attempting to shame their victims as liars. And here, Jama was convicted based on the claims only of “science.”
What this case tells us is that faulty, improperly kept DNA evidence[1. Because seriously: they weren’t using sealed sexual assault examination kits?] is worth more in many criminal justice systems than the word of women.
Victims are disbelieved; really, truly awful forensic “evidence” is trusted. Victims are called liars and whores with regrets about a wild night; contaminated rape kits are treated as gospel truth. By police, prosecutors, and juries, those who point out an assailant and say “he raped me” are looked upon with extraordinary, condescending skepticism; by police, prosecutors, and juries, all other evidence is overlooked in the face of some DNA. Juries let rapists go, reasoning, “well, she willingly went home with him”; juries convict innocent men, reasoning, “all of those crime TV shows can’t be wrong.”
This is not just about the fallibility of DNA evidence: it’s also about who and what we trust.
There is, of course, also undoubtedly an element of racism here:
“It’s a tragedy that this man served time in jail for a crime he didn’t commit,” Mr Boden told reporters.
He said the magistrate didn’t throughly question the complete lack of evidence in the case while the committal hearing simply rubber stamped the case for trial.
Police also treated his client like he was guilty and showed no interest in assuming his innocence, he said.
When asked if he felt the jury was also prejudiced in the case, he said: “I certainly do.”
Jama’s conviction took place in the context of a country where, like in all Western nations, racism is still incredibly prevalent against non-whites. Further, Jama is a black African Australian (some news sources say he is Somali, others Sudanese) in a country where African Australians are still a very tiny minority and perceptions of African-descended black people are very largely drawn from American depictions, which still regularly portray black people in a rather negative light.
This combination of misogyny against women rape victims and frequent racism against both victims and perpetrators (depending on the races of the accused and accuser) leaves current judicial systems oppressive and highly unreliable. And that impact is not just felt in relatively rare cases of wrongful convictions like Jama’s, but very largely by the victims those systems claim to represent.