Trial and Tribulations

Naim Amini fled Afghanistan to build a new life, a life now lost in the translation.

Deputy Carnahan took the stand and recapped her first-contact interview with Tasha. She was not cross-examined.

Judge Lawrence called a lunch break at one minute past noon. When court re-convened at 1:30 p.m., Salaymeh called Amini's daughter to the stand. Laila testified that she had asked her father for a back massage and that Tasha had then asked for one as well. She said that her dad's back massages didn't involve rubbing, but "karate chop" motions. She said that she was able to see her Dad the entire time he was karate-chopping Tasha's back.

"I was there. I watched. I saw. He didn't grab her breasts," she told the jury. "He didn't touch her breasts. He didn't reach under her shirt."

Heartfelt appeal: Attorney Paul Grant has requested a new trial for Naim Amini -- a trial he'd understand.
John Johnston
Heartfelt appeal: Attorney Paul Grant has requested a new trial for Naim Amini -- a trial he'd understand.

Investigator Ruppart was the final prosecution witness and, as it turned out, the final witness, period. He told the jury about his futile attempt to question Amini and about his videotaped interview of Tasha, during which he asked if she thought Amini could have touched her breasts accidentally.

"Well, it could have been an accident," she'd said. "Maybe he did it on purpose. I'm not sure. Maybe it's because he doesn't have a wife."

Judge Lawrence had cancer, and shortly before Amini's trial, he'd undergone throat surgery that rendered his vocal cords inoperable. In order to communicate with the lawyers, the jury and Amini's translator, he used a voice synthesizer, a metal device he held to this throat that picked up vibrations when he talked and translated them into a computerized monotone.

It was hard for even native English speakers to fully understand him.

"Anytime the judge would talk to the lawyers or the jury, my translator would say to me, 'I have no idea what he is saying with that talking machine, but it is probably just a formality,'" Amini remembers.

But once the prosecution had rested its case, the judge attempted to communicate directly with Amini, to make sure he understood his right to testify in his own defense. This is the moment Amini says he had been waiting for -- the time when the judge would ask him questions and he could proclaim his innocence. Judges are constitutionally required to ensure that criminal defendants comprehend this fundamental right.

This crucial exchange between Judge Lawrence and Amini, translated from voice-synthesized English to Farsi to Dari and then back again, bordered on the absurd. Here is the full transcript:

Judge Lawrence: "Mr. Amini, I need to ask you some questions at this time."

Amini: "Please go."

Judge Lawrence: "Do you understand you have a right to testify in this trial?"

Amini: "Yes."

Judge Lawrence: "And do you understand that if you want to testify, no one can stop you from testifying?"

Amini: "That's correct."

Judge Lawrence: "If you do testify, of course, the prosecution will be entitled to cross-examine you just like any other witness, do you understand that?"

Amini: "It can go to the last minute."

Judge Lawrence: "You understand that they can ask you questions if you take the witness stand?"

Amini: "If you think I should testify, I go in and testify."

Judge Lawrence: "I'm not telling you what you should do, I'm just making sure you understand that you have a right to do so; do you understand that?"

Amini: "Yes."

Judge Lawrence: "Do you understand, also, Mr. Amini, that you have a right not to testify?"

Amini: "Since I have no experience in the court, I don't know if you have any questions or she [here Amini gestured toward the prosecutor] has any questions for me. I answer the questions freely."

Judge Lawrence: "Have you made a decision, Mr. Amini, whether or not you want to testify?"

Amini: "Has it become evident to you that I am innocent? In that case, then it's okay. If it's not, then I have to defend myself."

Judge Lawrence: "Well, that doesn't answer my question. I am not the person who makes that decision as to whether you are guilty or not guilty; the jury makes that decision. I need to know now whether you want to testify or not."

Amini: "For whatever my lawyer deems necessary."

Judge Lawrence: "Well, Mr. Cole, how have you advised your client?

Cole: "Judge, I have advised him that, in my opinion, it would be better for him not to testify and to rely on the presumption of innocence in this case."

Judge Lawrence: "Mr. Amini, at this time, are you going to follow your attorney's advice not to testify?"

Amini: "Well, if I have to defend myself, I will defend myself."

Judge Lawrence: "Well, he's not -- you are not answering the question. My question is your attorney has recommended to you not to testify; are you going to follow that recommendation?"

Amini: "Since I don't have any experiences in this matters, and my lawyer has recommended not to testify, I won't testify."

Judge Lawrence: "All right. All right. The court will find that the defendant has decided not to testify and that this decision is voluntary, knowing, and intelligent."

This past June, at a hearing on the issue of his competency as a translator, Maroofi was asked whether he remembered translating Judge Lawrence's advisement regarding Amini's right to testify and Amini's waiving of that right.

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