2014, 256 p.
Our attention span for court cases is very short indeed. There might be a splash of publicity during the committal hearing, then nothing is heard for some time. The actual case, some months later, might attract attention if it is particularly salacious or graphic. The sentence is given, then the main characters subside back into obscurity and you’re left thinking “Now, what was that case again?”. Usually. But sometimes there is something about a case that snags the attention of a passing journalist or essayist, who picks at the threads and expands our gaze beyond that particular case into society more broadly. This book does just that.
Farah Jama was a young Somali man who was jailed for raping a woman thirty years his senior in a nightclub. He insisted that he was not at the nightclub and that he had never seen the woman before. The woman could not recall seeing any African men at the club that night, and could remember nothing at all about the attack. Farah was convicted solely on DNA evidence and eighteenth months later his conviction was overturned.
In this book, journalist Julie Szego traces through the crime, the case and the circumstances that led to the overturning of his conviction. On the way she finds herself on the edges, and eventually outside, the local Somali community as Farah becomes increasingly resistant to her questioning. He becomes determined to take his own story back with an eye to his own book somewhere down the line, and sees her as a competitor. She finds herself bridling against his anti-woman stance, even while she can understand it on one level. Her investigation takes her into the management practices and risk management policies of the Macleod Forensic Laboratory where the DNA was tested, and the organization’s defensiveness after several previous errors in dealing with DNA.
I think that the first book of this kind I read, where the journalist wades into the backwater of a crime, was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. I’ve read several others in recent years: Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation and The First Stone, Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man and Anna Krein‘s Night Games. It strikes me, looking at this list, that these later books are all written by women, and they all share an ambivalence and tentativeness about coming to a firm conclusion. This is probably because defamation lawyers are lurking, but also I wonder if there’s not a reticence to be too black-and-white, too certain.
It’s a strange genre in that generally readers know the outcome before they even crack open the book. The books do not appear on the shelves until some time afterwards, and they often follow a flurry of newspaper and television coverage at the time of the crime and then at key points in the resulting trial. The writer herself (or himself, in the case of Capote) becomes part of the story as well and often has to face her own prejudices and doubts. There’s often a larger picture as well: the football culture, black/white policing relations, the sharp edge of perfection, feminism and in this case, Somali ‘integration’.
This book is an easy read, told in an easy conversational style. There are chapters, but the narrative is presented in small segments within a broadly chronological structure. The focus shifts from one participant to another, and in this case, there are no baddies as such, only powerlessness and an underlying question of racism. Questions are raised, of course, about the dubiousness of the prosecution in the first place, and the reliability of DNA evidence.
Sometimes I watch television reports of the sentencing statements given from the bench after a particularly newsworthy crime. The judge often mentions that the accused “showed no remorse” as a factor for increasing the sentence. That seems odd to me. Why would a person who claimed that they had not committed the crime- especially to a stranger- be expected to show remorse? Perhaps a detached, abstract sympathy, but no remorse.
Farah Jama has every right to be angry. I guess that we can take some small comfort that everything worked out in the end, although we have no right to expect him to feel that way. The ease with which any questions about his original ‘crime’ were deflected is unsettling.
I’m posting this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.