Tuesday, March 15, 2005
SC Upholds Death Sentence in Rape-Murder of Valley Child
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A death sentence imposed for the murder of an eight-year-old San Fernando Valley girl was unanimously affirmed yesterday by the California Supreme Court.
Justice Carlos Moreno acknowledged that the defendant, Hooman Ashkan Panah, “was a youth who, before this crime, had no prior record of any serious offenses” whose “journey from his native land”—Iran—“to this country was an arduous and perhaps traumatic one.”
But those facts “pale in comparison to the gravity” of the killing of Nicole Parker, who was kidnapped and sexually assaulted with tremendous force, Moreno said. “We are unable to conclude that the penalty imposed in this case is disproportionate to his culpability.”
Nicole disappeared Nov. 20, 1993, while playing with a softball and mitt outside her father’s Woodland Hills apartment. Her body was found stuffed in a suitcase in the close of Panah’s bedroom in an apartment he shared with his mother across the courtyard.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Sandy Kriegler, who has been nominated for elevation to this district’s Court of Appeal, sentenced Panah to death on the basis of a jury verdict rendered in Van Nuys in 1995.
Jurors found Panah, who was 22 at the time of the killing, guilty of first degree murder with special circumstances, and of kidnapping a minor for sexual purposes, kidnapping a child under the age of 14, child molestation, forcible sodomy, forcible penetration of a child with a foreign object, and forcible oral copulation of a child.
In the penalty phase, prosecutors presented evidence from the victim’s parents and brothers as to the devastating effect of the crime upon their lives. The defense argued that Panah should be spared because he was mentally disturbed.
The defendant’s mother testified that Panah had a difficult life, for which she took a great deal of the responsibility. She recounted the turmoil amid which he had grown up, as she moved from Iran to Germany to Mexico and finally to the United States.
She had disciplined him harshly, she said, and had twice threatened to commit suicide in order to get him to break off relationships with young ladies of whom she disapproved.
The defense also called a former girlfriend of Panah, who testified that she believed him to be the father of her infant daughter and that his execution would leave her without a father. Prosecutors presented a rebuttal witness who testified the woman had lived with another man for 10 years and had identified him as the father.
On appeal, in addition to attacking his sentence, Panah argued that Kriegler deprived him of his right to counsel by replacing one of his two court-appointed attorneys rather than continuing the trial after the lawyer was injured in an automobile accident.
Moreno pointed out that Judge Lance Ito, who had the case before Kriegler, had specifically appointed the attorney, Syamak Shafi-Nia, as “second counsel” to Robert Sheahen. Sheahen, the justice noted, is a veteran criminal defense lawyer with prior death penalty experience, whereas Shafi-Nia was not a criminal lawyer but was chosen because of a personal relationship with the defendant.
Sheahen, Moreno noted, had acknowledged making “97 percent of the decisions in this case,” and had analogized his co-counsel’s “learning curve” as a “50-pound weight that we are dragging around.”
Moreno also pointed out that the trial judge had praised the work of William Chais, who was appointed to replace Shafi-Nia. While Chais had only been practicing for five years at the time and had not previously tried a murder case, Kriegler said he had done an “outstanding job” that was “far beyond what Mr. Shafi-Nia could have ever hoped to have added in this case because of his complete lack of criminal experience.”
Attorneys on appeal were Robert Bryan of San Francisco, who was appointed by the court to represent the defendant, and Deputy Attorney General Ana Duarte for the prosecution.
The case is People v. Panah, 05 S.O.S. 1231.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company