By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 22, 2007
A 7-year-old girl said she had been raped and repeatedly molested over the course of a year. Police in Montgomery County, acting on information from a relative, soon arrested a Liberian immigrant living in Gaithersburg. They marshaled witnesses and DNA evidence to prepare for trial.
What was missing -- for much of the nearly three years that followed -- was an interpreter fluent in the suspect's native language. A judge recently dropped the charges, not because she found that Mahamu Kanneh had been wrongly accused but because repeated delays in the case had, in her view, violated his right to a speedy trial.
"This is one of the most difficult decisions I've had to make in a long time," Katherine D. Savage said from the bench Tuesday, noting that she was mindful of "the gravity of this case and the community's concern about offenses of this type."
Loretta E. Knight, the Circuit Court clerk responsible for finding interpreters, said her office searched exhaustively for a speaker of Vai, a tribal language spoken in West Africa. They contacted the Liberian Embassy, she said, and courts in all but three states. Linguists estimate that 100,000 people speak Vai, mostly in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
In arguing to save the case, Assistant State's Attorney Maura Lynch said that dismissing the indictment "after all the efforts the state has made to accommodate the defendant would be fundamentally unfair."
Prosecutors, who cannot refile the charges against Kanneh, are considering whether to appeal Savage's ruling. Kanneh was granted asylum in the United States, according to State's Attorney John McCarthy. A conviction could have led to deportation proceedings.
His attorney, Theresa Chernosky, declined to comment. Delays were compounded by a dispute about whether Kanneh required an interpreter at all.
In Montgomery and elsewhere, the proliferation of languages resulting from immigration is presenting courts with a novel challenge, legal and linguistics experts say. Rarely, however, does a court have such difficulty finding an interpreter that a criminal case must be dropped.
Court interpreters and linguists say a national database of court interpreters would help quickly locate people fluent in uncommon languages. "The burden of increased requests for rare languages makes it a necessity," said Nataly Kelly, author of a book on interpreting.
Knight said the county spent nearly $1 million on interpreters last year, 10 times the amount it spent in 2000. "It's a constant struggle, and it is extremely expensive," she said.
Kanneh was arrested in August 2004 after witnesses told police that he raped and repeatedly sexually molested the girl, a relative.
In a charging document, Detective Omar Hasan wrote that the girl "attempted to physically stop the behavior from the defendant, but was unsuccessful." Hasan wrote that Kanneh threatened the young girl "with not being able to leave the apartment unless she engaged in sexual behavior with the defendant."
Kanneh spent one night in jail and was released on a $10,000 bond with the restriction that he have no contact with minors. He later waived his right to a speedy trial -- in Maryland, defendants have a right to be tried within 180 days following an indictment -- because the defense wanted time to conduct its own analysis of DNA evidence. That waiver was effective only until the next trial date, Chernosky argued in court.
The trial date was extended repeatedly as the state and the defense argued over whether Kanneh needed an interpreter and whether he understood the legal proceedings. The state noted that Kanneh attended high school and community college in Montgomery and spoke to detectives in English. The defense insisted that he needed an interpreter to fully understand the proceedings.
The matter was resolved after a court-appointed psychiatrist who evaluated Kanneh recommended that an interpreter be appointed. Judges who handled subsequent hearings heeded that advice.
The first interpreter stormed out of the courtroom in tears because she found the facts of the case disturbing. A second interpreter was rejected for faulty work. After calling the Liberian Embassy and exhausting other avenues, the clerk's office contacted the administrator of the state's court interpreter program in Annapolis. He located a third Vai interpreter, but at the last minute, that person had to tend to a family emergency.
In recent weeks, court officials had found a suitable interpreter who could have assisted in the trial, but it was too late.
Earlier this month, Chernosky filed a motion seeking to have the indictment dismissed, arguing that Kanneh's right to a speedy trial had been violated. "This delay is just too long," she argued in court. "The reasons for the delay are not the defendant's fault."
With help from the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators, The Washington Post identified three Vai interpreters Thursday, including one in Gaithersburg. Lionbridge, a company that offers interpretation services, said it could provide Vai speakers on short notice. Knight said her office had been diligent. "It's these rare languages we're struggling with so much," she said.
In court, Savage attributed no blame for the delay. She called the prosecutor's efforts to help locate an interpreter "Herculean" and said the court system had learned from the case. "Time has become the enemy," the judge said.
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.