When you are put on trial for a criminal offense, the constitution guarantees you certain rights. One of those constitutional guarantees extended to accused people is the right to confront accusers. But what happens when a language barrier exists, and an interpreter is involved? That was the situation for a Baltimore man accused of multiple counts of sexual assault. The man’s trial produced a conviction, but the Maryland Court of Special Appeals threw out that conviction due to violations of the man’s constitutional rights. The man, who is deaf, was not allowed to examine at trial the sign-language interpreters who were involved in translating his statement to police. That ruling denied the man a fair trial and required a reversal of the conviction.
The case stemmed from the alleged sexual abuse of several female students at the Maryland School for the Deaf between 2008 and 2011. In December 2012, police questioned Clarence Taylor about the abuse. Taylor was deaf and did not speak English, nor did he understand spoken English. During Taylor’s five-hour police interview, communication was facilitated through the use of a pair of American Sign Language interpreters. Using a system known as “relay interpretation,” the police detective would ask her question, and the two interpreters would translate that information into sign language. Taylor signed his responses, and the interpreters translated them into English.
Ultimately, Taylor was arrested and tried for the abuse. At trial, Taylor sought to question the interpreters. Part of his defense was a claim that the interpreters had misunderstood some of the responses he gave during the police interview. For example, the interpreters claimed that Taylor indicated that he had touched the breasts and buttocks of some of the girls, but he had done so inadvertently and had apologized for doing so. Taylor claimed that what he really said at the police station was that if he had touched the girls on the breasts or buttocks, it would have the result of accidental touching, and he would have apologized immediately. Certainly, establishing that the man did not admit to touching the girls’ breasts and buttocks might be a key part of the man’s defense.
The trial judge refused Taylor’s request to confront the interpreters at trial. Ultimately, the jury convicted Taylor of the charges. Taylor appealed and was successful, due to the violation of his confrontation rights. In Maryland, the right to confront one’s accusers is older than the U.S. Constitution itself, dating back to 1776. Both federal and Maryland laws agree that the right of confrontation extends to anyone who is a “witness against” the accused person. In other words, if the interpreters’ translations were “testimonial” in nature, Taylor had a right to confront them. If they were not, he did not.
The appeals court concluded that the interpreters’ translations were testimonial. The police requested the interpreters’ services, and the interpreters made recorded statements inside the police interview room to the detective who was responsible for investigating Taylor for possible acts of child sexual abuse. This entire process was for the purpose of obtaining information that might be used as evidence against Taylor in a criminal trial. “Such statements under official interrogation are an obvious substitute for live testimony, because they do precisely what a witness does on direct examination; they are inherently testimonial,” the court concluded. In doing so, it quoted a 2006 US Supreme Court case, Davis v. Washington. In that case, the accused person wasn’t able to confront a 911 operator who spoke to the alleged victim because, unlike the use of the interpreters here, the primary purpose of that conversation was to address an emergency, rather than obtain evidence for a criminal prosecution.
In Maryland, as in other states, prosecutors are required to produce enough evidence to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and do so without violating the accused’s constitutional rights. If you’ve been arrested and charged with a crime, it is important to contact a knowledgeable criminal attorney right away who can help you build your defense and protect your rights. Anthony A. Fatemi has the skills and extensive knowledge you need for handling your Maryland criminal defense case. Our office will work diligently to give you the best strategy available for your defense. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.
More blog posts:
Highest Court in Maryland Reviews Motion to Suppress in Criminal Wiretapping Case, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, April 8, 2016
Maryland Court Rules Second Indictment Violates Double Jeopardy Clause, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, Feb. 18, 2016