Two weeks ago I experienced the worst thing I have yet to experience in my journey of becoming a public offender (Read the explanation behind my title here). I represented a client who had been fighting a DUI charge for over a year. Everyone, I mean EVERYONE, assumed (strike 1) that Mr. Client spoke Spanish. Hell, even our Spanish-speaking receptionist spoke to him in Spanish. Mr. Client had his first trial and was found guilty. Mr. Client decided (we think) to appeal, eventually the original attorney retires and yours truly ends up representing Mr. Client.
Mr. Client is a nice, quiet, married, father-of-one, hard-working construction man. He doesn't make waves and he doesn't demand a whole lot. Maybe that was problem number one for me. It is so easy to get wrapped up in the people who, despite your advice, suggestions and then outright demand, still call you from the jail.
Twice a day.
Even on the weekends.
It is so easy to focus an entire day on the young man or woman whose mother, father, uncle, baby daddy, baby mama, grandma (granddad's never come, for some reason) decide to stop by the office and want to beg, plead, cry or demand that something be done on that person's case, yesterday. It is, sadly, so easy to let the quiet ones coast by and I take full responsibility for that screw up.
Every time Mr. Client came to visit me he brought his son with him to 'translate' (strike 2). Son is 17 years old and seems pretty bright, he claims to understand what I am saying and alleges he is communicating that to his father. I spent the early part of my elementary school years in Germany, my father speaks English and German, my mother is Jamaican so I spent years trying to learn Patois, my children speak French. With that being said, Spanish was never on my radar, so I do not know the difference between Mr. Client's son telling him what he thinks I said versus telling him what I actually said.
For over a year I am having meetings with Mr. Client and "conversing" with Mr. Client in court, confirming that he wants a trial in his case. Tuesday, August 6, 2013, I get the phone call, "I am calling Mr. Client's case for trial this Thursday at 9am." Ok great! I inform the court that they are going to need a court interpreter, the interpreter is located and she gives me a call, "Hey Ms. PD, I just wanted to know if I could meet with you and your client tomorrow afternoon." We schedule our meeting and I shove everything else on my desk aside in order to tie up the loose ends in my trial preparation for Mr. Client.
Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Client arrives before the interpreter and without his son. Well, that's ok because one of our part-timers speaks Spanish so we meet as we wait for the interpreter. During the meeting I notice our part-timer keeps looking at his phone. He is doing me a favor so I don't want to call him out but I am thinking "I KNOW this fool is not texting during my trial prep!" After about half an hour he asks if he can speak with me outside. We step out of my office and he informs me he is of the opinion that Mr. Client does not really understand what is going on, he believes it may have something to do with the fact that he only completed the first grade in Guatemala O_O but his comprehension does not seem to be that great. He then informs me that he pulled his phone out during the meeting because I found that he had to look up some of the words the client was using and part-timer had to describe some of the words he was using to the client O_O That was likely problem number two for me.
Whew...interpreter has arrived. I love her, she is our go-to person and she has GOT to be making a killing because everyone wants her. There are other interpreters in the area but there is just something about her, you trust her, the clients trust her, the judge's trust her, und so weiter. Ms. Interpreter introduces herself to Mr. Client, I explain to her what the case is about and what our meeting will cover. About 60 minutes into the conversation I am called out of the meeting. When I return Ms. Interpreter has a concerned look on her face. Apparently, Mr. Client got a LOT more chatty once the mean-looking American woman walked out of the room and Ms. Interpreter hits me with the bomb....HE DOESN'T SPEAK SPANISH! O_O Definitely clue number three for me that I have some problems here.
Mr. Client is from a little village in Guatemala where they speak...wait for it... Q’anjob’al ...I know, I know...I said 'what the hell' too. Of course, I immediately inform the court and we go on an all day adventure trying to locate a court certified interpreter who speaks Kanjobal (I discovered about 5 or 6 different ways to spell the name of the language). Finally, we locate a local EMT who was born and raised in America (so he speaks English) but whose parents were born and raised in Guatemala (and it just so happens they taught him Canjoval)! Whoo hoo, we're cooking with grease now, right? WRONG!
This guy arrives and starts conversing with the client and I can immediately tell his son has not translated one word I have ever said to him. Then I can immediately feel my stomach drop into the bottom of my colon because this is about to be a big mess. The judge gives us 15 minutes to converse with our client and the interpreter. After 15 minutes he calls us all in and the interpreter tries to tell the judge that a 30 minute conversation in English can take upwards of 4 hours in Canjobal because all of the English words do not exist in Mr. Client's native tongue (strike 3). So the judge decides he will give us a little more time, but he wants to relieve the jury pool for lunch. He calls them in and apologizes for the long wait, tells them he wants to release them for lunch and then tells them the reason they waited so long was because of an interpreter problem O_O (<--I made that face a lot over the course of the week). Well, the prosecutor is black, the Deputy is white, the two defense attorney's are black and white, but wait....that little brown guy over there...the defendant...yeah, he's probably the one that needed an interpreter, so he is the reason we have been waiting all day. SIGH....so now I have to call the judge out on tainting the jury pool.
Let me address for a moment some of the things I have learned judge's do not like (all of these are not from personal experience). Judge's do not like attorney's being late, judge's do not like being placed on hold by the DA's office, Judge's do not like being transferred to voicemail when they call and ask to speak with the DA, judge's do not like when defense attorney's tell their clients to hide because there is a warrant out for their arrest and, finally, judge's do not like being called out on the record.
On the record, myself, my co-counsel and my supervisor had to inform the court:
*15 minutes is not long enough to speak with a client you just realized did not speak the language you have been using to communicate with him for the past year
*it is unfair to revoke a clients offer from the state when, apparently, the client didn't know what offer he was turning down
*it was clear to the jury pool who needed an interpreter and now they will be looking at Mr. Defendant crossways when this pending trial takes 2 weeks to complete
There was a lot of name-calling and finger-pointing by the judge and he eventually removed our office from the case. He found it hard to believe that this man was allowed to go through this entire system without understanding anything that was going on. His exact words were "the system is not that flawed" O_O
He found it hard to believe that our office was incompetent enough to not realize that someone was not speaking Spanish, but instead was speaking a Mayan dialect that it took our court-certified Spanish interpreter over an hour to pick up on,
He could not believe we would throw another attorney under the bus by suggesting he had the first trial without the client knowing what was going on.
This went on for hours. When we were finally dismissed my supervisor told me that I could take the day, he could tell I was emotionally and mentally drained. Though I advocate for my clients everyday, that was the first time I had actually actively turned into a public offender. I did not care if I offended the court, I did not care that the clerk was upset about having her jurors there when there was not going to be a trial, I did not care that the jury had been waiting in the hallway all day long. My client did not understand what was going on, the court did not seem to care that he did not knowingly, intelligently or voluntarily do ANYTHING involved in his case up to this point so dammit I was going to cover him.
As horrible as the experience was for me, I cannot begin to imagine what my client was going through. The whole process made me wonder what good am I really doing? I was part of the problem. I should have asked better questions, I shouldn't have trusted his son, I shouldn't have assumed, I shouldn't have...I shouldn't have...I shouldn't have...
My client spent a year thinking I was the prosecutor until the EMT explained to him, in his native tongue, who I was. He and his wife smiled at me for the first time. And then the judge took me away from him.
The last day I was Mr. Client's attorney, I asked him what he thought having a trial meant. I mean, every time I asked if he wanted a trial the answer was "Si", but if you do not know what is going on, how can you keep asking for a trial? His response to my question? "It means to go free and try again."
I'm not ashamed to say I came home, opened a bottle of Moscato and cried.
Until next time,
Be blessed, be careful, don't consent and don't confess.