Omar Aguirre had been in the U.S. for only two years and knew little English when he found himself being questioned in the slaying of a Chicago-area furniture store owner, the Chicago Tribune reports. “I still don’t really know why they arrested me or what happened,” the 34-year-old Mexico City native said in Spanish recently, recounting how a police officer acting as his interrogator and interpreter told a prosecutor he had confessed to the crime. Aguirre served five years of a 55-year prison term before a federal probe determined last year that others were responsible.
Such cases are prompting experts and consular officials to call for independent interpreters during interrogations. In Chicago, Spanish-speaking detectives often translate a suspect’s statement for a prosecutor who speaks little or no Spanish. Such situations not only produce unreliable confessions, experts argue, but they could be violating a suspect’s civil rights.
Northwestern University lawyers have begun cataloging what they consider to be problem cases. They are eager to see what happens when authorities come under a new mandate to videotape interviews in homicide investigations.
Sandra Babcock of the Mexican foreign ministry’s Mexican Capital Legal Assistance Program said, “Police cannot act as their own interpreters…They are not neutral, and many of them are not qualified.” The detective who questioned Aguirre in Spanish said he had implicated himself in the crime. The officer’s English translation of the alleged statement, which Aguirre denied and could not even read, bolstered another man’s testimony that later was found to be false.
Police and prosecutors bristle at any suggestion that detectives are untrustworthy, and they say there is a great deal of value in detectives questioning a suspect directly instead of through an interpreter.