The Crime That Never Happened

May 21, 2012 - by Liz Porter

Farah Jama

Farah Jama (L)

Farah Jama, a 21-year-old Somali immigrant in Australia was convicted – based on contaminated DNA evidence – of raping a woman he had never met at a bar in Melbourne he had never been to. His exoneration, after 16 months in prison, led to important reforms in how DNA material is collected from rape victims. 

by Liz Porter

All over the world, young men sometimes still go to prison for crimes they didn't commit. But in 2008, in Melbourne, Australia, a 21-year old Somali-born student went to jail for a crime that didn't even happen. This unlucky young man was not the victim of police corruption or manufactured evidence. Instead, he was convicted by a piece of forensic evidence produced in a one-in-a-million “CSI moment:” the kind of improbable, but theoretically possible scientific episode that only a scriptwriter for the famous CBS series might dream up.

Sadly for Farah Jama, his “CSI moment” was real. It happened at Melbourne’s Austin Hospital, one of several in the city with suites of rooms where rape victims are taken for forensic examination.

It was here, in the early hours of Saturday, July 15, 2006, that an agitated young woman was waiting for the on-call forensic doctor to arrive and examine her. There was a sticky-looking substance in her hair: male ejaculate from a sexual encounter she’d been involved in a few hours earlier. The episode, involving oral sex, had not been romantic. But the girl hadn’t been  raped. A girlfriend had urged her to pursue a rape allegation, but she later withdrew it.

As the young woman paced up and down, her hair was shedding tiny, invisible fragments of male DNA. These unseen flecks floated in the air, some near a trolley holding swabs, slides and other equipment. One tiny fragment landed in an open box of slides. It sat there, a microscopic forensic time bomb, waiting to go off.

Just over 24 hours later, the same forensic doctor returned, having been called in to examine another patient. As the woman lay down on the bed next to the trolley, the doctor opened the box of slides, unaware that at least one of them was already contaminated with male DNA. With a gloved hand she took a sample from the woman and dabbed it on to the slide. She then sealed the slide in an evidence bag, and handed it to the waiting police.

Four months later, that tiny forensic bomb exploded.

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