Garner murder trial highlights use of interpreters

From left, Wake County Assistant DA David Saacks watches a playback on his computer screen of what the Santillan jury is watching on the big screen of graphic photos taken in January, 2013 at the murder scene of Samuel and Maria Mendoza.
From left, Wake County Assistant DA David Saacks watches a playback on his computer screen of what the Santillan jury is watching on the big screen of graphic photos taken in January, 2013 at the murder scene of Samuel and Maria Mendoza.

During this week’s trial of Jonathan Santillan, many of the witnesses have testified in Spanish, recounting details of gang fights, family life and a violent January morning two years ago.

Three translators have moved seamlessly in and out of the witness box, listening to questions in English from the prosecutor, defense attorney and judge, then echoing them in Spanish for witnesses, who then answer in Spanish.

A man was on the witness stand testifying in Spanish on Friday, then a woman repeated his testimony in English for the jurors, who will decide the fate of Santillan, one of two teens accused of murdering Jose and Maria Saravia Mendoza.

The interpreting is a taxing and intense exercise, Judge Paul Gessner told the jury. Because of that, the interpreters take frequent breaks.

The rotating cast of interpreters are bridging the language divide in a state where three years ago the U.S. Justice Department found that North Carolina was violating the rights of people who speak little or no English by failing to provide sufficient interpreters.

The problems surfaced in criminal and civil court proceedings and were brought to the attention of the federal Justice Department in 2011, when the N.C. Justice Center, a Raleigh-based advocacy group, filed a discrimination complaint on behalf of three nonprofits – the Latin American Coalition, the Muslim American Society and the Vietnamese Society.

The initial complaint centered on problems with criminal cases, but it was broadened by the Justice Department to expose troubles with civil cases, too.

About 10 percent of North Carolina residents speak a language other than English, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Justice Department said that more than 300,000 Spanish speakers in North Carolina have limited English skills. There are also nearly 4,000 native Vietnamese speakers with limited English skills, 12,000 who speak Chinese languages, and nearly 5,000 Arabic speakers.

Policy limited use

At the time of the complaint, North Carolina law and policy stated that the only individuals eligible for a free, court-provided interpreter were indigent criminal defendants in courtroom proceedings where counsel was provided.

Lawyers in Wake and Durham counties reported that indigent defendants had been routinely denied interpreters. The federal investigators reported that one Wake County staff member said he had seen Wake County prosecutors interpret for defendants.

Problems occurred in child custody cases, where parents did not fully understand what they were being asked nor the repercussions of their responses.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said this week that the availability of interpreters had improved since the Justice Department’s report.

“I think we’ve come a very far way from where we were 20 years ago,” said Freeman. “And we’ve made progress since the Justice Department issued its findings. But like everything else with the court system, resources are stretched very thin.”

Overall language access expenditure for this fiscal year was $3.17 million, as compared to $1.96 million two years ago.

The N.C. Judicial Branch currently has 83 Spanish-language interpreters, 79 of whom are certified. For languages other than Spanish, 143 interpreters are available.

The state Administrative Office of the Courts has assigned two interpreters to Wake County, she said, and others are available on contract.

In Durham, according to trial court coordinator Kathy Shuart, one interpreter is assigned for 30 to 35 hours a week, and more are available by contract.

The improvements are due, in large part, to the action taken by John W. Smith, who was head of the Administrative Office of the Courts when the Justice Department said the state was in jeopardy of being sued by the federal government.

Smith stepped down as head of the state court system on May 1 after conflict with Republican legislative leaders about whether magistrates were required to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. Smith said they were. Some legislative leaders thought magistrates should be able to opt out for religious reasons.

A better process

Two days before he left the director post, Smith announced the adoption of Standards for Language Access. They had been developed by a large committee that included judges, district attorneys, defense lawyers, community advocates and others familiar with the court system.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 reads as follows: “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

Bill Rowe, general counsel for the N.C. Justice Center and one of the committee members who developed new policies for North Carolina language services in the courts, said Friday that though his organization has not been able to monitor the day-to-day effect of the new protocol, the process had to be improved.

Before the Justice Department report, interpreter services were offered only to indigent defendants in criminal cases and some domestic violence cases.

State law at the time, court administrators said, limited them from providing free interpreters in most kinds of civil proceedings.

That changed this spring.

There is no question, Rowe said, that a better system is in place. “The big question is how it is being implemented in the courts,” Rowe said.

This week, the three interpreters in Wake County Superior Court for the Santillan trial kept the proceedings moving as they translated questions and answers. Sometimes they had questions of their own.

“Your honor,” Marie Ontiveros said. “May I ask the witness to speak up?”

Judge Gessner gave her permission.

The witness moved closer to the microphone. Then, in a louder voice, he recounted details from a January day two years ago that upended many lives, including those of the two children of the Mendozas, a couple from El Salvador who prosecutors say were the unintended victims in rival gang war.