Man serving death sentence acquitted of crime

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After four trials, two of which sentenced him to death, and seven years in prison maintaining his innocence, Le Ba Mai walked free on Tuesday (May 24).

The People's Court of the southern Binh Phuoc Province found Mai, now 29, not guilty of the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in November 2004.

The court said there was insufficient evidence to charge Mai with the crime. It also found conflicts in the testimonies of the only witness as well as in Mai's statements, including his so-called confession. Critical mistakes were also made in both legal and investigative procedures, court officials said.

According to the original indictment by the Binh Phuoc prosecutors' office, on November 12, 2004, Mai, who was working for a farm, saw 11-year-old Thi Ut and her nine-year-old younger sister Thi Hang picking cassava in a garden.

Mai persuaded Ut to go with him on his bike to a jackfruit garden nearby, raped her, and strangled her to death with her pants. Five days later, he was arrested and gave a full confession to the police, the indictment said.

At a trial held in the province in 2005, Mai was found guilty and sentenced to death. Later the same year, the  Supreme People's Court in Ho Chi Minh City upheld the verdict.

However, Mai and his family maintained his innocence, claiming that his confession was coerced by the police. They submitted several letters to related agencies calling for a retrial.

In late 2006, the Supreme People's Procuracy (SPP), the nation's highest prosecutorial agency, called for a retrial, citing many mistakes made by provincial investigators, including a failure to preserve evidence collected at the crime scene and incorrect written records.

The SPP also found contradictions in the testimony of Hang, the sole witness for the prosecution. For example, she first told police that she saw a "young man" giving Ut a ride on his motorbike, and only said it was Mai after he was arrested.

Mai's testimony was also in conflict with crime scene investigation records and evidence, and his allegation that he was coerced into confession was also cited as a reason for a retrial.

In May 2007 the SPP canceled the verdicts of the first and second trials and called for further investigations.

At the latest trial held by the Binh Phuoc People's Court, one of his co-workers, Nguyen Van Trong testified that Mai was applying fertilizers at the farm along with Trong at the time the crime was said to have been committed. It was the first time Trong's testimony was taken.

It was not clear if further action would be taken against those responsible for the earlier investigation and indictment or if Mai would receive compensation for his unjust imprisonment.

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