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Analysis Last Updated: Aug 7th, 2006 - 01:19:01

Case of Iranian on death row raises reasonable doubt about U.S. justice -- part 3 of a 4-part series
By Bill Conroy
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Aug 7, 2006, 01:16

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Alternative theory

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 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 an 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 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 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 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.

Final, Part 4: The informant

Part 1: The Crime

Part 2: Test the Theory

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

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