With three sign-language interpreters gesturing their readiness, one of the more unusual trials in Montgomery County Circuit Court got under way yesterday -- the case of a deaf man who is unable to speak and who is accused of stabbing his deaf and blind girlfriend.
Michael Martin, 35, was charged with attempted murder April 6, the morning after he allegedly stabbed his girlfriend in the chest at his Bethesda apartment during a sign-language argument about marriage plans.
But in his opening statement yesterday, Martin's lawyer, Barry Helfand, accused the alleged victim, Kathy Lamon, 28, of Silver Spring, of stabbing herself, describing her as an extremely "dependent" woman who "either intended to kill herself or make a suicidal gesture."
According to lawyers in the case, she suffered a punctured lung and was in critical condition after the incident.
As Helfand and Assistant State's Attorney Deborah Armstrong delivered their opening remarks to the jury, Martin stared from the defense table at a court-appointed interpreter, who translated in sign language from a seat in front of Judge Irma S. Raker's bench.
The interpreter, Ron Coffey of Hyattsville, added facial expressions to his translation, seeking to convey inflections in the lawyers' voices.
Like the other two interpreters, Coffey, who is not deaf, said in an interview that his job is to maintain "the integrity of the entire message." Doing so can be tiring, he said. He and Risa Shaw of Arlington took turns in the translator's seat.
"Fatigue sets in after an hour or so," Coffey said.
Both free-lance translators were referred to the court by Deafpride Inc. of Washington, a nonprofit group.
From behind the defense table -- for what is believed to be the first time in Montgomery County -- a video camera taped the proceeding. Lawyers could think of no other way to keep a record of the testimony of witnesses who will answer questions in sign language.
One of those witnesses will be Lamon, who was not in the courtroom yesterday. Although she is legally blind, lawyers said, with thick glasses she is able to see objects inches away.
"When she's on the stand," said Carla Mathers of Deafpride, "there will be one interpreter right up next to her face, giving her the questions."
Helfand, in an interview, said Martin and Lamon met several years ago and had an on-and-off relationship. In an interview Tuesday, conducted with pen and paper, Michael Martin wrote that he graduated in 1971 from the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick, and trained as a word processor at Montgomery College. He wrote that he worked for several months as a typist at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center, but was fired three weeks after his arrest.
His mother, Evelyn Martin, 57, said her oldest son became deaf when he was about 6 months old, after a bout with pneumonia.
At the time, Evelyn Martin said, she lived in Christiansburg, Va., with her husband, who has since died.
The couple later had two other children -- a daughter, now 34 and married, and a son, now 26, born deaf and severely retarded, who lives with his mother in her brick-front home in Wheaton.
Michael Martin has been staying with his mother for several months under court-approved house arrest.
If convicted of attempted murder, Martin could be sentenced to a life term in prison.