N.Va. Prisoner Lost in Translation

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 4, 2006

The man had been there before, wandering around the second floor of the Prince William County courthouse, his face a mask of worry.

No one knew how often he had come or to whom he had talked. But Kerry Kaiser, a clerk who sits at an information desk in front of the elevators, knew she'd seen him. She thought she might even have talked to him once, briefly, before the day when she really listened to what he said to her in Spanish.

"I didn't know exactly what he was saying, something about his brother," she said. "He was just desperate: 'This is my brother. I need to find him.' "

He said that his brother, Fernando Antonio Cruz, had been left in the county jail and that he should have been freed already. With a few clicks, Kaiser opened a file on her computer and confirmed that his case had been dismissed in December. It was February.

She alerted the clerk's office, which faxed a release order to the jail. Court records show that it was dated 3:01 p.m. Feb. 15, with the handwritten words "was dismissed 12-12-05!!"

Through human error complicated by language and cultural differences, Cruz had been forgotten. Like many immigrants, he had become as invisible inside the criminal justice system as he was outside. As the number of Hispanics has swelled to more than 16 percent of Prince William's 348,588 residents, Cruz's case shows how one immigrant can find himself lost in the judicial system.

Every morning, dozens of Latinos come by Kaiser's desk. Many appear confused, frustrated. Starved for familiarity, they devour her every word, even if her Spanish is a bit broken.

Kaiser, 59, speaks English with a strong Tennessee accent and Spanish with the inconsistency of someone who taught herself more through desire than formal training. But she tries, and she sympathizes, and on a February afternoon when the halls were mostly hushed except for a man wandering around with a worried look, she listened.

Mark Voss, a defense lawyer who frequently works out of the Prince William courthouse, said that what happened to Cruz is in part a product of the county's changing caseload.

"You go to court, and it looks like you're looking at Juárez," Voss said, referring to the Mexican city. "I go over there and start speaking Spanish, and the next thing I know three or four people are coming over. . . . I open my mouth, and all of a sudden I'm surrounded."

Voss was there the day Cruz's brother came looking for help. He explained to the man that the jail would release his brother in a few moments -- which it did. He also advised the man to take his brother home and then call Voss, because they had a potential lawsuit against the county. "Somebody made a mistake," Voss said. "If you spend two extra months in jail, that's not like spending an extra night in jail."

In the two decades he has worked in Prince William, Voss said, he's seen the justice system strive to keep up with population changes -- hiring more Spanish speakers, printing court literature in two languages, commissioning more translators.

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