Sometime in the late afternoon or early evening of March 6, 1977, a young woman walking down an alley in Mount Pleasant was approached by a 22-year-old man named Alvin Howard.
Howard and the young woman spoke, they walked together some distance, and then, according to the young woman, Howard forced her to come to the basement of his home at 19th Street and Park Road NW, where he raped her.
Howard subsequently was arrested and charged with kidnapping and rape. The facts of the case as alleged by the government in its indictment, although not pleasant, are not especially unusual, either. What makes the case different is Howard's disability that makes it virtually impossible for him to participate in his defense in the normal way-and the steps being taken to overcome the problem.
Howard, who has been held in D.C. jail since March 1977, currently is spending his days in D.C. Superior Court trying to prove his innocence with the help of a specially-trained interpreter provided by the court and a hearing aid also provided at public expense.
Howard's defense, as asserted in a note he wrote to the court last June, is that he is innocent because he did not force the complaining witness. "She gave to me," Howard wrote. "She know I did do nothing."
The trial is proceeding now only after extensive testing was done to determine the full extent of Howard's hearing loss, his mentally stability and his intellectual capacity.
In May 1977, a psychiatrist conducted a court-ordered examination of Howard. The psychiatrist, Dr. James Evans, reported that Howard "is mentally competent to stand trial and that he has a rational and factual understanding of the charges against him and is able to participate in the preparation of his defense."
Evans also said he could rule out mental illness at the time the alleged rape occurred. He reported that Howard, despite his hearing and speech defect, "talked lucidly and coherently and with good emotional control, describing in an integrated fashion the events which led to charges being placed against him. It was possible in spite of his speech problems to comprehend what he was saying."
Subsequent tests performed at the Washington Hearing and Speech Society determined that without any help whatsoever, Howard had a comprehension level of only about 16 per cent.
If speech was directed at Howard, however, "allowing him to utilize his speechreading skills," his level of comprehension was above 50 percent, according to a report filed with the court. "We feel Alvin's ability to follow the court proceedings will be enhanced, but repetition and careful delivery will be needed."
An earlier report, filed by D.C. General Hospital, said that Howard could use a hearing aid, but it alone would not "provide him with normal hearing, or indeed, sufficient hearing to be able to participate" in his defense.
Howard cannot speak or comprehend sign language, so the court appointed and "oral interpreter," Joseph Rosenstein, who is taking a leave from his job with the U.S. Office of Education's Bureau of Education for the Handicapped.
Rosenstein sits in front of Howard at the witness table and relays the testimony occasionally substituting a word that is easier to understand visually than the one actually used. Howard watches Rosentstein's lips intently.
According to Rosenstein, who said he is serving as an interpreter "only as a courtesy" because the case is a difficult one, Howard "lip reads exceedingly well."
The trial resumes this week.