ARSON WITNESS CONCEDES CHANGING STORY ABOUT EVERETT FIRE

The Seattle Times · by By Peter Lewis Thursday, February 2, 2006

The government’s key witness in the arson trial of an Everett businessman accused of torching his failing grocery store to collect insurance money underwent pointed cross examination Wednesday.

Naveed Muhammad Khan conceded under oath that he kept changing his story about his involvement and lied to prosecutors even after he signed a plea agreement promising to tell the truth.

It will ultimately be up to jurors, however, to determine if federal public defender Tim Lohraff’s grilling of Khan was enough to undermine the damaging testimony he gave against Lohraff’s client, Mirza K. Akram.

Akram is on trial for conspiring to commit arson and arson in connection with the July 9, 2004, fire that burned down his Continental Spices Cash & Carry store, which specialized in Middle Eastern and Pakistani foods.

Khan last year pleaded guilty to the same charges. He cut a deal with prosecutors, promising to cooperate and testify against Akram in exchange for the possibility of getting a sentence lighter than the five-year minimum he otherwise faces.

Under questioning by Lohraff, Khan conceded that getting a lenient sentence mattered most to him. Khan admitted that up until a week or two before trial started, he understated his true role in the arson during a series of interviews with a federal agent and prosecutors.

For example, he admitted he initially withheld information that he helped stage the fire to make it look like a hate crime by spray-painting crosses and an obscenity directed at Arabs. His participation in that ruse took on a strange twist when Lohraff introduced news clippings — including a 2003 New York Times article — chronicling how Khan himself was the object of discrimination.

The article recounted how Khan, then a sailor aboard the Everett-based aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and one of two Muslims on 5,200-member crew, was offended when someone from his electronics division asked when he was going to become a terrorist. “I was really outraged,” Khan was quoted as saying.

Khan testified that having suffered such discrimination himself, he was more ashamed about the hate-crime aspect than setting the store on fire.

Under questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jill Otake, Khan said he pressed on with the graffiti anyway because he “didn’t have the nerve” to say no to Akram, whom he said he regarded as a friend and an “older brother.”

MAN WRONGLY IMPRISONED IN ’88 MURDER SUES CITY, 3 OFFICERS

articles.chicagotribune.com · by Maurice Possley, Tribune Staff Writer. · January 31, 2001

LAWSUIT SAYS COPS BEAT SUSPECT, GAVE FALSE TRIAL TESTIMONY

A man who was imprisoned 11 1/2 years for a murder he did not commit filed suit in federal court Tuesday against the City of Chicago and three police officers accused of framing him.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages on behalf of Miguel Castillo, 49, of Chicago, who was released from prison in September after defense lawyers brought forth evidence showing he was in police custody on an unrelated charge at the time of the murder in 1988. The murder case was dropped earlier this month.

The suit accuses the officers–one of whom was fired in 1993 after allegations of using excessive force–of committing perjury during pretrial hearings and at Castillo’s trial. Named as defendants are Officers Jose Zuniga and Roland Paulnitsky and former Officer Walter Cipun.

Police spokesman Patrick Camden declined to comment. Zuniga is assigned to the Shakespeare District and Paulnitsky is a detective assigned to the Belmont Area.

According to the lawsuit, Zuniga testified that Castillo had confessed to him in Spanish–a claim Castillo denied. Paulnitsky is accused of falsely testifying about when the murder occurred to defeat Castillo’s claim of innocence based on his being in jail at the time.

The lawsuit accuses all three officers of beating Castillo during an interrogation at the Grand-Central Area detective station in January 1989. When Castillo still refused to confess, Zuniga concocted a confession, according to the suit.

The deliberate and outrageous acts of these Chicago police officers in framing Mr. Castillo for a vicious murder they knew he did not commit should lead to an investigation into why the Chicago Police Department never disciplines detectives and officers for manufacturing false confessions or giving false testimony to convict innocent people,” said Tim Lohraff, who along with attorney Jeff Haas filed the lawsuit.

“Detective Paulnitsky, Officer Zuniga and former Officer Cipun should be criminally prosecuted for their conspiracy,” Lohraff said. “Zuniga and Paulnitsky should … be terminated” from the department.

At issue was who killed Rene Chinea, a 50-year-old Cuban immigrant whose dismembered, decomposing body was found in his North Side apartment May 18, 1988.

Paulnitsky, neighbors of the victim and the Cook County medical examiner’s office determined the date of death as around May 6-8, according to the lawsuit.

Castillo was arrested Jan. 20, 1989, based on a tip from a suspect in the murder, and was beaten the next day, according to the lawsuit.

Zuniga contended that Castillo, who spoke only Spanish, had confessed. There were no notes of the alleged confession.

At trial, when defense attorneys said Castillo had been in Cook County Jail on a burglary charge from May 6 until the afternoon of May 11, the officers changed their testimony to suggest that Chinea had been killed after May 11, according to the lawsuit.

Cook County Circuit Judge John Morrissey convicted Castillo in a bench trial, saying he doubted the testimony of the medical examiner’s office about the time of death and believed the testimony of the police officers. Morrissey sentenced Castillo to 48 years in prison.