Posted on July 16, 2004

Lack Of Interpreter Helps Immigrant Secure New Trial

Eric Hanson, Houston Chronicle, Jul. 14

An appeals court has ordered a new trial for a Mexican immigrant, saying his Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses was violated because there was no interpreter at his trial for sexual assault in Brazoria County.

Jose Medrano Garcia’s conviction was reversed in March by the Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin, which ordered the 14th Court of Appeals to determine if the lack of an interpreter harmed Garcia’s chance for a fair trial.

The Houston-based 14th Court of Appeals considered the matter and issued an opinion Tuesday signed by Chief Justice Adele Hedges.

In the opinion, Hedges wrote that Garcia, 37, who received an eight-year prison sentence, was able to understand only one witness who testified in Spanish. All others spoke English.

“Because appellant could not understand the testimony of the complaining witnesses against him, it is inevitable that this incapacity hampered his attorney’s ability to effectively cross-examine the state’s witnesses and, consequently, appellant’s ability to participate in his own defense,” the ruling states.

Justices Kem Thompson Frost and Eva Guzman joined Hedges in the ruling. There was no dissenting opinion.

Angleton attorney John J. Davis, who handled the appeal, said he was pleased, but not surprised, by the ruling.

“I think the law is pretty clear,” he said Wednesday.

Davis said the case now rests with Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne.

Prosecutors can appeal the ruling or move forward with a new trial.

Yenne said the state will probably opt for a new trial.

“We want to make sure that justice is done for all parties,” she said Wednesday.

Yenne described the lack of interpreter at Garcia’s trial as an aberration, saying interpreters are on hand for all trials whenever one is needed.

Garcia was born in Matehuala, Mexico, and attended school there through the ninth grade. He immigrated legally to the United States.

Garcia went on trial in January 2001. A relative had accused him of sexually assaulting her on Oct. 31, 2000, at her residence in the town of Richwood.

No interpreter was provided during the trial. Garcia was able to communicate with his attorney, Ken Bishop, through Bishop’s legal assistant, who is bilingual.

Although the legal assistant sat next to Garcia during the trial, she did not interpret the proceedings.

She testified at a hearing on Garcia’s motion for a new trial that she didn’t translate because she was afraid it would disrupt the proceedings.

“Garcia did not realize that he had been found guilty until they left the courtroom,” the justices wrote in March.

The 14th Court of Appeals rejected the initial appeal filed by Garcia, prompting his attorney to turn to the Court of Criminal Appeals, which issued the reversal in March.