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Language Barrier Delaying Justice - America, Nov 2004

Yvonne Wingett, The Arizona Republic, Nov. 26, 2004 12:00 AM

For six months, Octavio Luis Perez has sat silent in a jail cell, his justice delayed until linguists can identify his language.

Their closest guess so far: an exotic dialect of the high villages of Guatemala and Mexico.

But police suggest the 23-year-old, accused of rape and kidnapping, is feigning an inability to speak Spanish in hopes of faking his way out of the system.

Whether he's a clever suspect or one with a mysterious dialect, the court's inability to determine his language quickly has delayed Perez's right to a speedy trial, court officials say.

It's the first time in recent history where interpreters could not identify a defendant's language, they say.

"It is quite possible he never learned a language," said Raúl Román, manager of the Court Interpretation and Translation Services for Maricopa County Superior Court.

"We're dealing with a very unique case. Justice has been delayed."

The courts want to avoid that at all costs, he added.

It is incumbent on the court to guarantee defendants know why they are arrested and to provide them a chance to talk to attorneys:

"In this case, we have not been able to really meet those expectations," Román said.

So far, the court is within the acceptable timeframe set by the rules of criminal procedure, according to documents. A Dec. 16 status conference before Judge James Keppel has been set.

Mesa police arrested Perez on April 22 after a 17-year-old girl told police he put a pillow over her chest, held her down and raped her, according to court documents.

At the time, an police officer who only spoke intermediate Spanish "detected no unusual dialect" and he communicated with Perez well enough to build a detailed statement of probable cause.

"In his professional opinion, the defendant understood what he told him and he understood what the defendant told him," said a police spokesman, Sgt. Chuck Trapani.

Court officials gathered financial information on Perez.

According to the documents, his total monthly expenses are $800. He works in construction and lives in Mesa. The paperwork established that he "stated he wants to return to Mexico."

Language experts suggest Perez may speak only fragmented Spanish, insufficient to understand interrogation questions and then assist counsel in his defense.

A Superior Court judge has postponed Perez's legal proceedings as court officials hunt the nation for interpreters who know his native tongue. The Mexican Consul and linguists from Texas to California have worked the case.

They were able to understand a few words, "mother and father," and they determined he lived in southern Mexico at one time, Román says.

At one point, they thought they discovered Perez's native tongue: a dialect of Tzotzil. It's one of about 20 Mayan-based languages spoken in poor, pre-modern areas of southern Mexico and parts of Guatemala, said Emil Volek, a professor of Spanish at Arizona State University.

But now they believe he speaks Northern Mam, another Mayan dialect. A linguist next week will try to communicate with Perez using the language that's spoken by a few thousand in Mexico and about 200,000 in Guatemala.

Southern Mexico and parts of Central America are home to an estimated 70 indigenous groups.

Many are isolated and resemble pre-conquest societies, experts say.

"There might not be anyone who can speak the language of this person at the level required for court interpreting," said Dr. Roseann Dueñas Gonzalez, director of the National Center for Interpretation and professor of English at the University of Arizona.

"You have a person unable to have the benefit of justice. And you have a government that's unable to seek justice because they have a (language) barrier."