U.S. ex rel. Negrón v. New York

434 F.2d 386 (2nd Cir. 1970)

Despite the obvious injustice of trying a criminal defendant in a language that he or she cannot understand, not until this 1970 decision was the right to an interpreter clearly established by a federal court. The case involved Rogelio Negrón, a Puerto Rican farm laborer in Suffolk County, N.Y., who killed a fellow worker during a drunken brawl. Although no effort was made to translate the trial into Spanish, Negrón's only language, the defendant was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to twenty years to life. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the conviction on constitutional grounds in a decision that inspired Congress to pass the federal Court Interpreters Act of 1978.<1> Judge Irving Kaufman delivered the opinion on October 17, 1970.

The government does not dispute that at the time of his trial, Negrón, a twenty-three-year-old indigent with a sixth-grade Puerto Rican education, neither spoke nor understood and English. His court-appointed lawyer, Lloyd H. Baker, spoke no Spanish. Counsel and client thus could not communicate without the aid of a translator. Nor was Negrón able to participate in any manner in the conduct of his defense, except for the spotty instances when the proceedings were conducted in Spanish, or Negrón's Spanish words were translated into English, or the English of his lawyer, the trial judge, and the witnesses against him were gratuitously translated for Negrón into Spanish.

The times during pretrial preparation and at trial when translation made communication possible between Negrón and his accusers, the witnesses, and other officers of the court were spasmodic and irregular. Thus, with the aid of an interpreter, his attorney conferred with Negrón for some twenty minutes before trial at the Suffolk County jail. Negrón's own testimony at trial, and that of two Spanish-speaking witnesses called by the state, was simultaneously translated into English for the benefit of the court, prosecution, and jury by Mrs. Elizabeth Maggipinto, an interpreter employed in behalf of the prosecution. ... [D]uring two brief recesses in the course of Negrón's four-day trial, Mrs. Maggipinto met with Negrón and Baker for some ten to twenty minutes and merely summarized the testimony of those witnesses who had already testified. ...

To Negrón, most of the trial must have been a babble of voices. Twelve of the state's fourteen witnesses testified against him in English. Apart from Mrs. Maggipinto's occasional ex post facto brief resumes the detail and accuracy of which is not revealed in any record none of this testimony was comprehensible to Negrón. Particularly damaging to Negrón's defense was the testimony of Joseph Gallardo, an investigator from the Suffolk County District Attorney's office. Gallardo testified both at the Huntley hearing and at trial each time in English, although he also was able to speak Spanish. ...

It is axiomatic that the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of a right to be confronted with adverse witnesses ... includes the right to cross-examine those witnesses as an "essential and fundamental requirement for the kind of fair trial which is this country's constitutional goal."<2> But the right that was denied Negrón seems to us even more consequential than the right of confrontation. Considerations of fairness, the integrity of the fact-finding process, and the potency of our adversary system of justice forbid that the state should prosecute a defendant who is not present at his own trial. And it is equally imperative that every criminal defendant if the right to be present is to have meaning possess "sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding."<3> Otherwise, "[t]he adjudication loses its character as a reasoned interaction ... and becomes an invective against an insensible object."<4>

However astute Mrs. Maggipinto's summaries may have been, they could not do service as a means by which Negrón could understand the precise nature of the testimony against him during that period of the trial's progress when the state chose to bring it forth. Negrón's incapacity to respond to specific testimony would inevitably hamper the capacity of his counsel to conduct effective cross-examination. Not only for the sake of effective cross-examination, however, but as a matter of simple humaneness, Negrón deserved more than to sit in total incomprehension as the trial proceeded. Particularly inappropriate in this nation where many languages are spoken is a callousness to the crippling language handicap of a newcomer to its shores, whose life and freedom the state by its criminal processes chooses to put in jeopardy. ...

The Supreme Court held ... that when it appears that a defendant may not be competent to participate intelligently in his own defense because of a possible mental disability, the trial court must conduct a hearing on the defendant's mental capacity.<5> Negrón's language disability was obvious, not just a possibility, and it was as debilitating to his ability to participate in the trial as a mental disease or defect. But it was more readily "curable" than any mental disorder. The least we can require is that a court, put on notice of a defendant's severe language difficulty, make unmistakably clear to him that he has a right to have a competent translator assist him, at state expense if need be, throughout his trial. ...

1. 28 U.S.C. § 1827.

2. Pointer v. Texas, 380 U.S. 400 (1965).

3. Dusky v. U.S., 362 U.S. 402 (1962).

4. Note, "Incompetency to Stand Trial," Harvard Law Review 81 (1969): 454.

5. Pate v. Robinson, 383 U.S. 375, 384 (1966).