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Analysis Last Updated: Aug 8th, 2006 - 00:35:35

Case of Iranian on death row raises reasonable doubt about U.S. justice -- part 1 of a 4-part series
By Bill Conroy
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Aug 3, 2006, 01:48

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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.

The crime

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 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 p.m. and 11 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.

DNA revelation

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 mid-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.

Next, Part 2: Testing the theory

Part 3: Alternative theory

Bill Conroy, an investigative reporter and correspondent for Narco News, can be contacted at

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