Local News

Criminal Cases Often Lost in Translation

Posted August 13, 2007 5:31 p.m. EDT
Updated August 13, 2007 6:57 p.m. EDT

— A growing number of crime victims and witnesses across North Carolina speak only Spanish, presenting a frustrating language barrier for prosecutors and defense attorneys.

The Wake County District Attorney's Office had used a two-year grant from the Governor's Crime Commission to pay for a Spanish translator. But the grant money ran out at the end of May, leaving prosecutors scrambling for help to communicate with victims and witnesses as they try to bring cases to trial.

Translation problems have delayed a murder case after a vendor was killed at a Raleigh flea market in March, for example. The suspect and several witnesses are Hispanic.

"We can get interpreters to do proceedings in court, but the kind of interactions we need to have with these witnesses and victims we can't use the court interpreters, or at least it's terribly expensive. So, we have to find other ways to do it," District Attorney Colon Willoughby said.

Wake County Public Defender Bryan Collins said he often calls upon bilingual staffers in his office to help translate, but that takes them away from their regular duties.

"The Hispanic population is growing quite fast, and our ability to translate for all of those folks is lagging far behind," Collins said. "It can impact the quality of justice because cases get postponed. Good investigations can't be done when there's that communication problem."

The new state budget includes funds for district attorneys statewide to hire 80 victim witness legal assistants by next July. Willoughby said he wants any local hired to be bilingual to assist with translation needs.

In the meantime, his staff is getting creative to hurdle the language barrier.

"Through the Spanish Department at (North Carolina State University), we've been able to get some students who would come over and translate for us at no charge, which is a tremendous help for us," he said.