Defendant With No Language Proves Difficult to Prosecute

Jeremy Roebuck, Inquirer (Philadelphia), January 11, 2011

With a flick of his wrist, the interpreter at the front of the courtroom mimed the bang of a judge’s gavel, his other hand pointing to the ceiling.

The crude gestures were meant to convey that the case against Juan Jose Gonzalez Luna would be heard in a higher-level court.

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Did the 42-year-old [Juan Jose Gonzalez Luna]–who is deaf, mute, and illiterate, including no known knowledge of sign language–understand what had just happened?

As Gonzalez has next to no language skills, his case has baffled Montgomery County courts since his arrest on drug trafficking charges late last year. While courts have come a long way in providing access to interpreters in a host of exotic languages, no one is sure how to translate for a man who knows no language at all.

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Accommodating those with limited access to language is a rare problem in U.S. courts, but one that judges have met with limited success.

Many have avoided the problem, declaring such defendants incompetent to stand trial. Others have relied on a complex and imperfect method of interpretation, one still viewed with skepticism by many in the legal profession.

And while most courts say they do their best, a good effort is not good enough, said Michele LaVigne, a lawyer and scholar at the University of Wisconsin Law School.

It is not, after all, that defendants like Gonzalez are incompetent to stand trial, but that the U.S. court system largely remains ill-suited for trying them.

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Gonzalez’s limited grasp began at infancy in the southern reaches of the Mexican state of Michoacán. Although uncertain of much of his client’s history, Rideout thinks Gonzalez lost his hearing after a severe fever as a baby–a story reenacted through pantomime.

ith no formal education and little exposure to other deaf people, Gonzalez grew up virtually without language. He has picked up a few signs over the years.

But this inability to communicate is exactly what made him a valued member of a King of Prussia-based drug trafficking ring, prosecutors say.

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“He makes the perfect drug mule,” First Assistant District Attorney Kevin Steele said. “He can’t consent to a search. He can’t answer any questions about the operation.”

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Arriving at a recent preliminary hearing, he motioned toward detectives gathered around him. He pinched at his neck as if adjusting an invisible necktie. He bent his other arm mid-torso and clenched its fist, mimicking a heavy briefcase.

“He can’t talk to the judge,” one detective joked. “But of course he knows how to ask for his lawyer.”

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In many recent cases, declaring incompetence for trial has become a standard reaction, Tuck said. Many judges order confinement to institutional language programs, hoping the defendant can be taught American Sign Language and eventually stand trial.

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