A recent Idaho case raises the question of whether non-English speakers who are accused of crimes are being understood, the Idaho Statesman reports. The defendant faced a possible death penalty in connection with his infant son’s death. One reason he may only serve three to 15 years on a manslaughter charge is that court-certified interpreters found that parts of his interview with Nampa police had been misinterpreted. “When an individual is missing a word, it’s not just a word. It’s something that will make or break your case,” said Estella Zamora, interpreter coordinator for Canyon County, who headed the effort to transcribe the hours-long video and audio tapes of the suspect’s interview with police.
While courts have procedures to ensure the accuracy of proceedings that involve non-English speakers, law enforcement agencies do not have policies that guarantee the correctness of what is said during investigations, before a suspect appears in court. Some law enforcement officials say having bilingual staff members meets their need to communicate with non-English speakers. Court interpreters say there’s a difference between being bilingual and being a trained interpreter. The Boise Police Department has 35 bilingual officers out of 297 sworn officers. About half of them speak Spanish; the rest speak various languages, including sign language, Tagalog, Vietnamese, German, Japanese and Hebrew. After spending weeks poring over the transcripts of the Idaho suspect’s Meza’s interview with police, Zamora would like to see police do things differently next time. “My recommendation is if they have a violent case – a rape, murder, a high-profile case – get an interpreter who knows what they’re doing,” she said.