Proving Innocence in Iran: An Near Impossible Task and A Wrong Approach
Principle 37 of the Constitution provides: “Innocence is to be presumed, and no one is to be held guilty of a charge unless his or her guilt has been established by a competent court.” When a person is accused of a crime, therefore, he/she does not have to prove his/her innocence. On the contrary, it is the plaintiff that must prove that a crime has been committed.
Although seemingly self-evident, things are far from obvious in practice. There are many cases in the judicial system where defendants have faced unjust punishments simply because they have not been able to prove their innocence. The Jam-e Jam newspaper’s current events page (Volume 3870, dated December 22, 2013, page 19) has an example of just such a case. The story is that an individual accused of murdering his store employee, confesses to the crime after undergoing police questioning, more accurately, after suffering physical and psychological torture, and is sentenced to death. After six years of imprisonment, and exactly 48 hours before execution, he miraculously escapes death and is freed when the real killer is arrested and confesses to the murder.
The explanation provided by that innocent individual regarding the reason for his confession, is cause for reflection: “The police took me to the police station. There, everyone told me I was a murderer and proceeded to beat me. I realized I could not stand the beating so I said to myself, they will kill me if I don’t confess, and they will hang me if I do. So it’s better if I do confess because at least they’ll stop beating me … I was in [police] detention for a few days and then I was taken to jail. I told my prison mates everything. They said that if I retracted my confession they would take me to the Detective Squad, and since I had already confessed to a murder at the police station, they would force me to assume responsibility for five or six others. I was brought to court a few times, and I would shiver and shake every time I heard the slightest mention of the Detective Squad. I was so afraid that no matter how much my family and friends insisted that I tell the truth, I would not listen to them. I alluded to financial issues as the motive for the murder, and convinced the judge that I was indeed the murderer…”
Unfortunately, the police’s serious inability in scientifically solving crimes and the lack and/or shortage of efficient manpower on the one hand, and the huge volume of cases as well as a shortage of appropriate manpower in the judiciary, on the other, has created a completely erroneous and misconceived approach and process within the police and the judicial systems that is diametrically opposed to the principle of presumption of innocence. So much so that in certain cases, the duty to prove the commission of the crime by the accused is shifted from the prosecution/plaintiff, to the defendant, who must prove his/her innocence.
Since I do not wish to be accused of generalizations, please allow me to cite an actual example of just such a case. One of my clients was contacted and summoned to the Detective Squad’s Sixth Branch. Once there, he was told that someone had brought charges of purse snatching against him, and that he was to return the following day to face his accuser. My client, who completely believed in his innocence, returned the next day to face the accuser, after which, the latter announced that my client was indeed the purse snatcher. He was arrested and sent to the Criminal Prosecution Office that afternoon where bail was set. Further, he was put at the Detective Squad’s disposal for a week for questioning, which, given my client’s innocence, proved fruitless.
After this episode, my client contacted me and told me what had transpired. Aware of the Criminal Prosecution Office’s procedures, I advised him of the necessity of retaining an attorney. He, however, believing that an innocent man is always vindicated, did not heed my advice. A few months later, when he was summoned by the court for a trial session, he realized that an indictment had been issued against him and that he would soon be in big trouble. So he came to me. Because I had known him and his family for many years and had no doubt about his innocence, I agreed to represent him.
There were a couple of noteworthy issues in my client’s case: First, my client had voluntarily gone to the Detective Squad and the Prosecution Office, and had never been issued and sent a summons. In fact, believing in his innocence, my client was more vested in the case than the plaintiff. Second, the plaintiff had not provided any evidence whatsoever to prove his allegation, and there was no evidence in the file. The plaintiff alleged that two individuals riding a motorcycle had snatched his bag at 9 PM: one had grabbed the purse from his shoulder and had jumped on a motorcycle ridden by the other, about three hundred feet behind him, and fled. The only thing that the plaintiff announced when he was pressing charges, was that they were riding a blue Pulse motorcycle.
Ten days later, the plaintiff went to the Detective Squad and declared that he had seen the motorcycle that had snatched his purse and that he had written down the license plate number. That number was my client’s, and the plaintiff had seen my client on a street that was less than three hundred feet from where my client lived, and perhaps a little farther from where the robbery took place. In other words, there is a very short distance between my client’s place of residence and the location where the robbery took place; about 1000 yards, more or less. After going to the Detective Squad and the Prosecution Office, my client denied any part in purse snatching and insisted on his innocence. Unfortunately, however, in spite the complete lack of evidence against my client, both the assistant prosecutor and the judge in the case found my client guilty of purse snatching, based solely on the plaintiff’s provision of a license plate number, ten days after the commission of the crime, and based also on the misinterpreted belief that the license plate number had been written down by the plaintiff on the night of the robbery. According to the evidence existing in the file, including plaintiff’s clear admission, he took down my client’s motorcycle’s license plate number ten days after the robbery and declared it as that of the purse snatchers!
Unaware of the time of the commission of the crime, and assuming it had occurred during work hours, my poor client brought an affidavit from his place of work [declaring that he was working during the day], not knowing that the purse snatching had occurred at 9 o’clock in the evening. I went to the scene of the crime a few days prior to the inquiry session. I set up to meet with my client at 9 PM in order to determine for myself how much the plaintiff’s account corresponded to the truth. My client came to our meeting with the motorcycle alleged to have been used in the robbery. I asked my client to get on the bike at various distances [from the crime scene]. I became convinced that there was no way to determine the make and color of the motorcycle, not just from where the plaintiff claims it was, but even from much closer. I took pictures of my client on his bike from different distances to show the judge at trial. However, not only did the honorable judge not allow me to speak, he was angry and offended and even deprived me of the little time I had to write [a statement].
The conduct of the judge (who is apparently one of the more reputable judges at the Be’sat Judicial Complex) was not exactly impartial and appropriate. I went to him the day after the trial, to submit my statement. An argument ensued and even the intervention of the director of the Complex was in vain. The judge believed that my client was a purse snatcher and my defense of a purse snatcher had no justification, and constituted (of course) a valid reason for his behavior toward me! When the court decision was issued, I realized that my prediction had been correct: my client was sentenced to one year in jail and return of the property. It was also interesting that even though the plaintiff had not presented any evidence of ownership of the claimed property, the judge had listed his account of the content of the purse exactly as recounted by the plaintiff. Even more interesting was that the plaintiff had initially claimed that there was one cell phone in the purse, which was later increased to two, without any evidence whatsoever, such as the phone package(s).
I decided to appeal the decision. I prepared a thorough brief in the hope of overturning the lower court’s decision. I then went to the judge that was to consider the appeal and discussed the case with him. Since the hearing was set for June 30, 2013, however, I was told to go back on said date for further explanation. The judge was fairly young and seemed careful and precise. I said to myself that God willing, pursuant to legal principles and based on the evidence in the case, the ruling would be overturned. As I was preparing for the June 30, 2013 hearing, I suddenly realized that the Court of Appeals’ decision had already been rendered - 40 days before the set date – and the lower court’s decision had been upheld, reducing prison time, however, to five months.
The Court of Appeals decision was extremely disappointing and a sobering moment for me, and a kill shot for my innocent client who did not have a criminal record and was going to have to spend five of the most precious months of his young life in prison with hardened criminals, based on a groundless claim. And no one knows what can possibly happen to him! Even though my client is innocent, his family and I have contacted the plaintiff to get his consent to drop the charges, to no avail. In order to do so, the plaintiff is asking for 200 million Rials, whereas the entirety of the property stolen from him is worth less than 10 million Rials.
In my last conversation with the plaintiff, I asked him to at least provide the serial numbers for the cell phones he claims to have been stolen from him, so that perhaps I could trace them to the real thief. For unknown reasons, however, he absolutely refused to cooperate. Currently, my client’s only hope is that, in reading this note and ordering a thorough and impartial consideration of the case, the Head of the Judiciary can prevent another innocent person – the son of a disabled war veteran – from being senselessly punished.
“The art of justice lies not in punishing all the guilty, but in not punishing a single innocent.”