Trial and Tribulations
The voice in his ear kept whispering, "This is only a formality." It whispered other things, but they were mostly gibberish. The one phrase he could understand was "This is only a formality." The voice whispered it while he worried whether the judge would ever ask him to explain his innocence. It whispered while the prosecutor branded him an evil man. It whispered right up until he felt the cold steel of the handcuffs on his wrists and he was led away to prison, while his daughters wept and his sons shouted. "This is only a formality," the voice whispered. "This is only a formality."
The call from dispatch was for a cold sexual assault, "cold" meaning not in progress. Deputy Michelle Carnahan of the Douglas County Sheriff's Department responded to a two-story tract home in Highlands Ranch. She was met at the door by Tamara, a 29-year-old hairdresser from the Ukraine. It was Wednesday morning, September 2, 1998. According to a report Carnahan filed that afternoon, Tamara said that her ten-year-old daughter, Tasha (not her real name), had just revealed that a friend's father had sexually molested her earlier that summer.
Tasha was upstairs in her room. Carnahan asked Tamara to call her down.
Naim Amini was born in 1942 in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. He was the best student in his sixth-grade class. The army came for him that year. The army came for all twelve-year-old-boys who were the best students. Amini was drafted, then enrolled in a military school in the capital city of Kabul, eight hours away by mountain roads. He graduated from military school, then military college, then officers' school. He was a lieutenant colonel in the Afghan army in 1979 when the Soviets invaded, took over and went to war with the fundamentalist Muslim rebels, the Mujahadeen.
Embroiled in a bloody guerrilla action, the Soviets in 1982 lowered the minimum draft age from eighteen to twelve and raised the maximum from forty to fifty. They put Amini in charge of overseeing this new draft in the region of Mazar-e-Sharif.
Strangers delivered letters to Amini, a devout Muslim. The letters were from the Mujahadeen: "You are one of us. Here are the names of people we do not want you to draft, because they are our fighters. Send us information about how many fighters the army is asking you for, and where they are going to be sent."
Amini did not comply. One winter morning at dawn, men with guns came to his house and took him away.
Deputy Carnahan sat with Tamara at the kitchen table while Tasha laid it all out. She and her mother had come to Colorado from Ukraine in 1996 and had lived in Winter Park until May 1998, when they'd moved to Highlands Ranch.
In July, she'd started sixth grade at Coyote Creek Elementary. During the first week of school, she made friends with a girl in her class from Afghanistan, also ten years old, named Laila Amini. Her new friend lived nearby, and Tasha had spent the night at Laila's house several times that summer, beginning in late July. On the first night she stayed over, Tasha said, she and Laila were playing Go Fish on Laila's bed when Laila's father came into the room and lay on the bed between them.
Tasha said that she was lying on her side, with her back to Laila's father, when he started massaging her shoulders and then slid a hand around until it rested on her breast. She told the deputy that his hand was on top of her nightshirt, not on her bare skin, and that he kept talking to her, telling her not to go to sleep. She said he spoke "very broken English."
Tasha said she didn't ask him to stop touching her breast, that he just stopped after a while and then got off the bed and left the room. She said his hand was on her breast for about five minutes.
Carnahan asked Tasha if that was the only time her friend's father had touched her in a way that was bad, and she said no, there had been two others.
The Mujahadeen moved Amini from village to village for two weeks, under armed guard, with a vicious dog chained outside his window at night. Finally a Mujahadeen leader told him: "Don't worry. We're not going to kill you, because we're in need of you and you're part of us. But from now on, we need you to do what we say." They let him go, and he walked to the nearest village, then caught a bus home.
His wife had reported his kidnapping, and when he showed up back in Mazar-e-Sharif, safe and sound, he was interrogated by the Soviets. They wanted to know if he had agreed to collaborate with the Mujahadeen. He denied that he had. The Soviets transferred him to another region. Strangers delivered more letters: "We know where you are. Remember what we said."
Caught between sides, Amini fled. For a week, he and his wife and their three children traveled under cover of night by horse and carriage, then on foot, until they crossed the border into Pakistan and then into India. They lived as refugees in New Delhi for eight years, occupying a tiny apartment, scraping by on a United Nations stipend. The Soviets lost the war in Afghanistan, and the country's new leaders began sending Amini letters, demanding that he return from India to face charges of treason.
So he fled again, this time to Colorado, where his brother had immigrated during the war.
The family of six -- by now Amini and his wife had a second daughter, Laila -- arrived in Denver in 1990. Claiming he would be killed if he returned to Afghanistan, Amini asked for and was granted political asylum.
He got a job as a dishwasher, then as a courtesy clerk at the King Soopers on Dry Creek Road. His sons went to work in restaurants, while his daughters went to school. They saved enough money to buy a house in Highlands Ranch. Amini's wife died of cancer in 1994. His heart broken, a widower in a foreign land, he kept bagging groceries, because King Soopers offers good family medical insurance and it's hard to find a job with benefits in America when you don't speak English, even for a college-educated former army officer.
"Life had taken me up, to where I was a man of stature in Afghanistan, and now life had taken me down, to where I was holding this little position to provide for my family," he says.
Tasha couldn't say exactly when the other assaults had occurred, because she'd been over at Laila's house four or five times in August. Sometimes Amini didn't touch her, she said, and sometimes he did. The second time it happened was this one night when Tasha had been sitting on the couch watching television with Laila and her father, who were lying side by side on the floor. Tasha told Deputy Carnahan that Laila's father had called out to Tasha to come lie beside him, and when she did, he touched her breast again. She could remember no other details.
The third time, she said, she was at the foot of a staircase in Laila's house when Laila yelled at her to come upstairs. Tasha started up the stairs, but then Laila's father grabbed her from behind, pulled her into a hug and put both his hands on her breasts.
Carnahan listened, noting that Tasha was nervous but highly articulate for her age.
"She took her time before she said anything as far as how to describe it," Carnahan later recalled. "Especially when she would go into how his hand was placed or how long it was there or anything of that nature. She hesitated on describing those incidents. She didn't cry. She kept her eyes on the table."
The afternoon of September 5, 1998, three days after his youngest daughter's friend had accused him of sexual assault, Amini was bagging groceries when his manager told him a police officer wanted to see him in the back of the store.
That morning, Douglas County investigator William Ruppart, then assigned to the sheriff department's Sexual Abuse Against Children unit, had videotaped a twenty-minute statement from Tasha in which she repeated the same accusations she had made to Carnahan.
Ruppart's questioning of Amini was quite brief; neither man could understand the other. Ruppart confirmed that Amini knew the alleged victim, then gave up. "Our conversation was neither meaningful nor logical," he said.
Two days later, Amini was charged with four felonies: three counts of sexual assault on a child by a person in a position of trust, and one count of patterned sexual abuse of a child. Amini maintains to this day that he is completely innocent.
"This girl who has accused me, she is the same age as my daughter, and I see her with the same eyes I see my own daughter," Amini says through an interpreter. "How can it be reasonable to think that a man of my age would have the nerve to do something such as this while my own daughter is in the room watching? How can anyone believe such a story?"
Earlier this year, Amini celebrated his sixtieth birthday inside a Colorado state prison, where he is serving a twelve-year sentence.
Susan Wilson was the young-adult librarian at Bemis Public Library in Littleton in 1995 when she met Naim Amini's elder daughter, Mariam, who was then a student at Heritage High School. Mariam would do her homework in the library most days after school, and her father would usually come to pick her up. Every time he did, he would bring Wilson a piece of fresh fruit, as a token of his appreciation for helping Mariam with her research papers. Over the years, Wilson became a friend of the family and often visited their home for dinner.
"I am a parent of two daughters and a grandmother of two little girls, and I would not hesitate to leave them alone in the company of Naim Amini," she says.
Two weeks before he was charged, Amini had passed a verbal version of the test given to all applicants for United States citizenship. He'd studied for it by memorizing all of the hundreds of questions and answers in the study guides, including the names of all the presidents and the history of Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, the test had not required that he learn the basic elements of the American system of criminal justice, which differs considerably from that of Islamic nations, including Afghanistan.
In the Islamic system, there's no jury, prosecutor or defense attorney. There is only the judge, who questions all of the witnesses, including the defendant, considers all of the evidence and then renders a verdict. In Afghanistan, a man on trial for a crime does not choose whether he wants to answer questions, to tell his side of things, to testify. The judge asks, he answers. That is how it is done.
After he was charged, Amini posted a $10,000 bond and entered a plea of not guilty. He was then appointed a defense attorney, Wayne Cole, a longtime Colorado assistant public defender. Cole met with Amini for the first time in October 1998. Mariam, who speaks fluent English, acted as a translator. A full-scholarship student at the University of Denver majoring in political science and economics, she'd recently returned from a semester abroad in London.
"Mr. Cole was very reassuring," Mariam recalls. "He told us the prosecution's case against my father was very weak. They only had the unsubstantiated accusations of this one girl and no physical evidence. So he said we should not worry so much."
Fifteen months passed while the case ground through the cogs of the system, delayed by continuance after continuance.
Cole never returned phone calls during this period, Amini says. They did not meet or speak again until January 4, 2000, one day before Amini's trial was finally set to begin. At that meeting, Cole relayed an offer from the People of Colorado: If Amini pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of attempted sexual assault, he would be sentenced to probation only, no prison time.
Amini refused the deal. He realized that pleading guilty to a sex crime might cause him to lose his political asylum and be deported to Afghanistan, where the Taliban were still in power. (Although Amini had passed the verbal test for citizenship, he had not yet taken his oath, and now the citizenship process was put on hold pending the outcome of his trial.) He figured the Taliban would chop off his head as a homecoming present. "They will kill me if I go back," he said.
And besides, why take a deal when the accusations against him were false? "What kind of man would I be," he asked, "if I said, 'Yes, I did this,' when I know it is a lie?"
Jury selection began the next morning. Once the jury was seated, the judge in the case, Scott Lawrence, directed the jurors to read a pamphlet explaining the principles and procedures of an American jury trial. "Did everyone have an opportunity to read the instructions that described the trial process?" he asked following a recess. "Anyone not understand? No hands are raised."
At no point did the judge, Amini's lawyer or anyone else take the time to make sure that the defendant also understood the process, the presumption of innocence, the roles of the prosecutor, judge and jury, or his right to testify in his own defense. "I kept thinking the judge or someone was going to ask me questions. I wanted to know what their questions were. I wanted to tell my story," Amini says today, speaking through his daughter. "I don't know how they made a decision without knowing my side of it."
Imagine that, for whatever reason, you move from this country to China. You can't speak the language, but you live there a few years and things are going okay -- until you're accused of a serous crime. You say you're innocent to whoever will listen, but the Chinese government puts you on trial anyway. At the trial, you're not really sure what's what and who's who, but you're pretty damn sure you know who the judge is, so you concentrate on him and wait for him to ask you some questions, even though you know the questions are going to be in Chinese. But that's okay, because the government has provided you with an interpreter who they promise speaks fluent English. This interpreter sits behind you during the trial, and the idea is that he's supposed to be whispering a simultaneous translation in your ear, just like they do for the ambassadors at the United Nations. Except once this guy starts whispering, you recognize that he's speaking English, but what kind of English? The accent is strange and heavy, and he keeps using slang and colloquialisms you don't understand. It's like he's speaking some sort of Cockney dialect, or Appalachian hillbilly patois. All while he's translating Chinese on the fly.
If Amini is telling the truth, this is what it was like for him to be on trial in Douglas County.
Amini does not speak English. His sons and daughters usually translate for him, but his sons and daughters were subpoenaed as witnesses by the prosecution, so they couldn't be inside the courtroom during his trial. Instead, the court system appointed him a translator, just as it had appointed him a defense attorney. The translator was David Maroofi, an Iranian who claimed to be fluent in both English and Farsi, the native language of Iran.
There are two major languages spoken by natives of Afghanistan: Pashtun, which is more widespread, and Dari, which is a distant country cousin of Farsi. Amini grew up speaking Dari. He and Maroofi could barely comprehend one another in normal conversation, he says, and once the trial was under way, Maroofi gave up on simultaneous translation. "He kept telling me, 'Don't worry about this, it is only a formality, it is only a formality,'" Amini remembers. "He said, 'You don't need to know this now. It is only a formality. I will explain it later.' But later never came."
William Royce has served as chief of Dari service for the Voice of America, the government's international broadcasting network, since 1997. From 1984 until 1997, Royce was the VOA's chief of Farsi service. He studied both dialects while pursuing his Ph.D. in Near Eastern studies at Princeton University and taught Farsi at the University of Arizona, where he was a professor in Near Eastern history.
"The VOA has two separate services and separate staff to do language transmissions to speakers of Farsi in Iran and Dari in Afghanistan," Royce says. "We would never use a Farsi speaker to do a radio transmission in Dari or vice-versa. Based on my experience in the two languages, there are significant differences between them, especially on the spoken level. I believe it would be almost impossible for a Farsi speaker to serve as an effective translator into Dari."
Opening arguments commenced at 3:05 p.m. on January 5, 2000. Prosecutor Rema Salaymeh briefly summarized the three accusations. "It was out of fear of these incidents and that so much more could happen that [Tasha] finally told her mother," she said. Cole told the jury that his client had been falsely accused for motives unknown. "I will be unable to show you a clear motive for falsification," he said. "I will be unable to establish that [Tasha] had anything against my client."
Opening arguments from both sides consumed a scant twelve minutes. Court was adjourned for the day.
The next morning, Salaymeh called Tasha as the prosecution's first witness. "Was there ever a time when you were at your friend's house spending the night that her father touched you in a way that made you feel uncomfortable or embarrassed?" she asked.
"Yes," Tasha said.
"Do you remember that time, or those times?"
Nearly a year and a half had passed since the first night Tasha stayed over at the Amini house -- long enough, maybe, for a young girl's traumatic memory to lose focus. Except that with a little coaxing from Salaymeh, Tasha appeared to regain her memory. She told the jury that during the first assault, she'd been lying on her stomach on her friend's bed and that Amini had come into the room and had put his hand under her shirt and touched her bare breast. She said his hand stayed on her breast for about ten seconds before she told him to stop and he did.
Her story had changed once she was on the witness stand.
There were four glaring inconsistencies between her testimony under oath and her initial reports to Carnahan and Ruppart:
She first had said that she was lying on her side, with her back to Amini; at trial, she testified that she was lying on her stomach.
She had said that Amini's hand remained outside her clothing; at trial, she testified that his hand was against her bare skin.
She had said the assault lasted about five minutes; at trial, she testified that it was more like ten seconds.
She had said that she'd remained silent during the assault; at trial, she testified that she told Amini to stop.
Tasha's testimony regarding the second assault better matched her initial accusation. But she drew a blank on the third assault, the one during which Amini had supposedly pulled her into a hug from behind and grabbed both of her breasts. She now testified she had no memory whatsoever of such an incident.
Cole's cross-examination was succinct. He asked Tasha if she had willingly gone back to spend the night at Amini's house three or four times after Amini had first allegedly touched her breast. She said she had. Once the two girls were alone in Laila's room, he asked, had Laila wondered why Tasha had been telling her father to stop? No, Tasha replied, Amini's daughter had said nothing.
The prosecution's next witness was Tasha's mother. She testified that Tasha had first told her about Amini touching her a few days before she'd reported it to the sheriff's office. They had been spending the weekend at their house in Winter Park, she said, when Tasha sort of blurted out that Amini had been giving her massages. "I asked, 'What kind of massages?' and then she told me everything," Tamara testified.
Under cross-examination, Tasha's mother remembered that Tasha and Laila had been fighting at school shortly before Tasha came forward with her accusations. Amini's daughter had been teasing Tasha about having head lice and had encouraged other students to make fun of her, Tamara said. Cole pinched out this information, then never mentioned it again, letting a potential motive for fabrication fly away like a thread in the wind.
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."
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?"
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?"
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.
Maroofi's response was puzzling. (In addition to not speaking Dari, it seems Maroofi also has a few issues with English.) "I supposed if he asked him yes, the answer," he testified. "But if he asked him a question, the answer is yes. But if I remember vividly that's because basically Mr. Amini was not on the stand during the trial. That's because of that I say I don't remember that because he was not on the stand if I do remember."
At the same hearing, Maroofi was asked to explain, in English, what Judge Lawrence had meant when he'd asked Amini: "You understand they can ask you questions if you take the witness stand?"
Maroofi now replied: "Oh, yes. It says that if you think because it seems like he's saying that if you asking judge that if you think he's saying that if you asking judge that if you think I should to take the stand, I take stand. I think that's correct."
Proper translation is not a word-for-word exercise. To be effective, a translator must understand both languages well enough to translate concepts -- such as the greater implications of the word "testify."
"Being forced to have Mr. Maroofi as one's translator must have been like being locked in a cell with an alien being," says attorney Paul Grant, who is representing Amini in his request for a new trial. "Mr. Amini was placed on trial in a proceeding whose nature he did not understand, a proceeding which was presented in a language he did not speak, a language which was translated for him by an Iranian who did not speak his dialect.
"Now, is that a fair trial?"
Asked for his impression of the crucial exchange between Judge Lawrence and Amini, Wayne Cole says, "What I recall about this is that Mr. Amini had been interrupting the court. Judge Lawrence was trying to shut Mr. Amini off and get through the advisement, and it was a difficult process. The interchange was not a very direct one. There were questions being asked and not responded to, and the court was not dealing directly with what Mr. Amini was saying."
Cole never conducted a practice examination to see what kind of witness Amini would make. He also admits he made no attempt to communicate with Amini before or during the trial to ensure that Maroofi's interpretation was adequate.
Cole called no witnesses in Amini's defense. He called no character witnesses, such as librarian Susan Wilson, who says she would have testified. He called no expert witnesses on child molestation, who could have told the jury that molesters almost always find a way to get their victims alone. He did not call any of Laila's other friends from school, who could have testified that they'd spent the night at Laila's house many times and never had a problem with her father, and that Laila and Tasha had been feuding.
In fact, Cole put up no defense at all. The trial moved directly from the prosecution's case to closing arguments.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I would suggest to you this," Cole began. "This case is a pretty good example of how it is possible for a totally innocent person to end up in a court of law accused of a crime he didn't commit and have nothing to rely on except the legal principles you have been instructed on."
He underscored the inconsistencies in Tasha's testimony before going into his wrap-up: "Now, you weren't there and I wasn't there, and the district attorney wasn't there. Nobody can know for certain what happened. So there is some doubt, and the question for you to answer is whether that is a reasonable doubt. I submit to you that under this charge, with this evidence, with this testimony, it is far more than a reasonable doubt. It is a huge doubt, a monstrous doubt."
Salaymeh got the last word. "Mr. Cole is correct," she told the jury. "You weren't there. I wasn't there. He wasn't there. But there are two people who know what happened at the defendant's house three times to [Tasha], and those two people are [Tasha] and the defendant.
"And I ask you to think about how important your decision is and to think about what will happen if you make a decision that isn't right and you think about it the next day. You're at work and talking with your colleague at work: 'Oh, well, yeah, it was a sexual assault on a child, but we found the guy not guilty.'"
The trial proceedings concluded at nine minutes before five. The total elapsed time of the trial -- including opening and closing arguments, presentation of evidence, jury instructions and conferences between the judge and the attorneys -- was five hours and forty minutes.
The jury deliberated for an hour that night before going home, having not yet reached a verdict.
"I was not real to them," Amini says. "I was just a statue, sitting there, arms crossed, with a man whispering in my ear."
The jurors resumed deliberations at 9 a.m. the next day. They broke for an hour at lunchtime. At 2:18 p.m., after more than five hours of deliberation, the jury passed a message to the judge through a bailiff: They were deadlocked.
The jury's foreman, Mike Moore, also passed a note to Judge Lawrence: "I don't believe beyond a reasonable doubt the story told by [Tasha] about being touched on her breast," Moore's note read. "I do not reasonably believe that the defendant would perform this action on the first encounter with this person and in the presence of his own daughter. Furthermore, I do not believe the people have made a case beyond a reasonable doubt."
Judge Lawrence sent back a message asking the jurors if they were certain they were deadlocked.
At 3:15 p.m., the foreman sent out another note: "We the jury do not believe that continued deliberations will be productive. If we do not unanimously find the defendant guilty, are we in fact finding him not guilty?"
This note, written in the hand of foreman Mike Moore, was accompanied by another note, this one by a different author:
"I cannot come to the conclusion of guilt. It is hard for me to believe that this incident could have happened based on this being the first time [Tasha] spent the night. In addition, the logistics of where each party was does not lend itself to this event occurring. I do not feel that either attorney did a good job in presenting convincing arguments, or that it was investigated very well at all.
"Based on the witnesses and legal arguments, I have reasonable doubt if this occurred at all or if it has been blurred past the point that [Tasha] can tell what actually happened, if anything. How much of this is [Tasha's] own words, and how much of this recounting has been ingrained over time with the repeated words of others?"
"The jury was clearly struggling," says Grant, who's read the transcript again and again. "They just needed a little nudge. They would have loved to hear Mr. Amini say, 'I don't know why she's made this accusation, but it never happened. I would never do that.' The jury would have liked to have been reassured that he is not a dangerous person; they wouldn't have understood his words directly, but they would have seen him as a kind, gentle, quiet, calm, respectful, grandfatherly looking person with his own daughters. They would have seen him expressing horror and outrage at the idea of an adult touching a child inappropriately. He would have said that to him, as a devout Muslim, it would defy belief that he would ever do anything like that."
At five minutes to five, the jury sent out a third note: "If we do not unanimously find the defendant guilty for any individual account, how do we proceed, assuming there will be no reconciliation?"
Judge Lawrence began to exhibit frustration. "I don't know what's going on with these people," he told the attorneys.
In a courthouse waiting room, Cole informed Amini and his family for the first time that, if convicted, Amini was facing a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years in prison and would be taken into custody immediately. "We were shocked," says Mariam. "We had no idea. Mr. Cole said, 'I'm only telling you this now because I'm a little scared, because they're taking so long to decide, and that's usually a bad sign.'"
Also, it was near quitting time, and criminal defense attorneys fear late-day verdicts.
"People just want to go home and not have to come back the next day," says Grant. "Especially when they've already said once or twice, 'Hey, we're hung, it's over,' and the judge sends them back a note, 'No, no, no, no. Can you please go back and do it some more?' That sends a message that you're not getting out that easy. So in a lot of cases, some people on the jury say, 'Okay. I give in. It's not worth it to me to keep fighting. I don't know this guy. I'll go along with the rest of you so we can all get out of here.' They cave. It's sad, but it happens all the time."
At 5:10 p.m., the jury sent a final note to Judge Lawrence: "We have reached a verdict on counts 1, 2, and 4."
The jurors had deliberated for a total of just under eight hours -- two hours longer than the entire trial.
Lawrence read the verdicts through his speech synthesizer: Amini had been found guilty of two counts of sexual assault on a child and one count of pattern sexual assault. His bail was immediately revoked. He was handcuffed and led away. The bailiff gave Mariam her father's wallets and keys.
"That's the only dad I have!" Laila screamed at the jury. "How could you do this?"
Inside the Amini house that night, the phone rang and rang. It was the first night of Eid Al Fitr, the annual Muslim celebration marking the end of Ramadan, a holy month of fasting from dawn until dusk. Amini's friends were calling to wish him "Eid Mubarak," a happy breaking of the fast.
"Dad hadn't told any of them this was going on," Mariam says. "We had to explain to them why he wasn't there. You can only say he's at work for so long."
Mariam has fond memories of the days her family was living in India, when she was young and her mother was still alive. "It was a tiny apartment, but we were so much happier then," she says. "The family was all there. Now, in Highlands Ranch, yes, we have a big house, but it feels like an empty house."
Naim Amini has been in prison for nearly two years now. Mariam and her brothers visit him every other Sunday. Not Laila, though. Now twelve years old, she hasn't seen her father since the day he was convicted. She's not allowed to see him. Because he was found guilty of sexual abuse of a minor, Amini is prohibited from contact with minors, including his own daughter, even in a supervised prison visiting room.
Mariam has memorized her father's earliest possible release date: "April 13, 2005." To be paroled that early, Amini would have to continue to earn good-behavior credits, and he would have to successfully complete a course of treatment classes for sexual offenders. There is a catch, however: To complete the courses, he has to know English.
Unless his conviction is overturned, whenever Amini is released, there is a good chance the Immigration and Naturalization Service will deport him to Afghanistan, where he still believes he will be swiftly killed.
On December 3, three judges will hear Amini's appeal for a new trial. (Judge Lawrence passed away last month.)
"I have to win this appeal," says Grant. "Mr. Amini has to win this appeal."
Until then, Amini will remain in prison. The only good thing he can say about life there is that he likes the art classes. He's been painting a lot, landscapes and animals mostly. He hopes he can go back to work at King Soopers someday. This time, though, he wants to work in the bakery. "I want to decorate cakes," he says. "I want to be with my family again, and I want to decorate cakes."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- The Lady Bulldogs Are the Most Winning Team in Sports-Crazed Denver
Fri., Oct. 16, 7:00pm
Fri., Oct. 16, 7:30pm
Sat., Oct. 17, 1:30pm
Sat., Oct. 17, 7:00pm
- Ivan Lopez's Kidnapping Bust Part of Meth-Fueled Crime Group Indictment
- Inside Denver's Halfway Houses: "It's Filthy Dirty and Unsafe"