Originally created 09/15/03

Rock Hill case highlights need for Spanish translators

YORK, S.C. -- During a recent trial here, Olga Doris Osorio, 29, was convicted of assault and battery with intent to kill for stabbing 34-year-old Juana Castillo in the stomach, severing nerves and veins in Castillo's left arm.

The trial was a first for York County as far as anyone involved in the case can remember. Neither the defendant nor the victim spoke English.

Translators were required to get information from Spanish-speaking witnesses and to explain answers to jurors, which spoke only English. One translator sat next to the victim and explained the proceedings to Castillo.

While the case may have been the first, most agree it will not be the last. Census 2000 figures showed the Latino population in York County had more than doubled since 1990 to 3,220.

The rapid growth of the Spanish-speaking community has brought an increased presence of Latinos into the legal system, court officials say. And as assistant prosecutor Lisa Collins told jurors Osorio's trial, the U.S. legal system is supposed to provide "justice for all."

Providing that justice, however, often means finding a way to bridge the language barrier. "If a jury cannot understand the testimony of those who were there, then our legal system means nothing," Collins said. "We need the services of interpreters every step of the way."

Judge John C. Hayes, who presided over the case, said the courts were trying to adapt to the growing number of participants who don't speak or understand English.

"We've got some problems, but I think we're working to face them," Hayes said. "Right now, I think things are going fairly well and we are adjusting."

One of the keys to success for now is the quality of translators.

Sarah Robbins, who was certified last year through the North Carolina court system, and Barbara Guidry, the Hispanic community liaison for the city of Rock Hill, are considered two of the best interpreters in the state.

Guidry sat beside Castillo and kept her informed throughout the trial, while Robbins interpreted questions from the attorneys word-for-word for each Spanish-speaking witness - two from Mexico and one from Honduras.

She translated their Spanish responses into English for the court.

"My primary role is to make sure nothing is omitted, nothing is added and everything is interpreted verbatim," Robbins said. "An interpreter must be neutral."

The state Court Administration office is required to keep a list of interpreters. That list now has 40 Spanish-speakers, but does not include Robbins or Guidry.

Desiree Allen, the administration's court services manager, said she recently wrote to courts across the state asking for updated lists of interpreters.

"You can't just pick someone off the street and make them an interpreter," Allen said.

In some cases, however, people who cannot speak English are asked to provide their own interpreters, often family members or friends. There have been times when people are pulled out of local Mexican restaurants to act as interpreters.

That notion and other potential problems worry Judge Hayes. One stumbling block, he says, could arise from bilingual jurors or those with minimal Spanish skills.

"You could have a juror trying to listen with their own ear and maybe hearing something different than the rest of the jurors," Hayes said.

If a juror is completely bilingual, he or she could be relied on by the rest of the jurors during deliberations as "an interpreter for the interpreter," Hayes said. "It's like that old saying, 'In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.' "

Attorneys in private practice hire interpreters to prepare cases, interview witnesses and to gauge the accuracy of other interpreters.

"The Hispanic population is growing by the day," said Rock Hill attorney Derek Chiarenza. "These folks are here, and legal services are among the services they need. They get into legal problems like everyone else, but many times there's no help available because of the language barrier."


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