Jeremy Roebuck, "Defendant with no language proves difficult to prosecute", Philadelphia Inquirer 1/11/2011:
As [Juan Jose Gonzalez Luna] has next to no language skills, his case has baffled Montgomery County courts since his arrest on drug trafficking charges late last year. While courts have come a long way in providing access to interpreters in a host of exotic languages, no one is sure how to translate for a man who knows no language at all. […]
Accommodating those with limited access to language is a rare problem in U.S. courts, but one that judges have met with limited success.
Many have avoided the problem, declaring such defendants incompetent to stand trial. Others have relied on a complex and imperfect method of interpretation, one still viewed with skepticism by many in the legal profession.
And while most courts say they do their best, a good effort is not good enough, said Michele LaVigne, a lawyer and scholar at the University of Wisconsin Law School.
It is not, after all, that defendants like Gonzalez are incompetent to stand trial, but that the U.S. court system largely remains ill-suited for trying them.
"The law is a language-based system," she said. "Drop someone in who can't access that immediately, and we still don't know what to do with them."
The background in this particular case seems to be that Mr. Gonzalez became deaf due to an early-childhood infection, and because he grew up in rural Michoacan, had no opportunity to learn a full sign language, but instead was limited to communication by pantomine and "home sign".
With no formal education and little exposure to other deaf people, Gonzalez grew up virtually without language. He has picked up a few signs over the years.
But this inability to communicate is exactly what made him a valued member of a King of Prussia-based drug trafficking ring, prosecutors say.
Detectives arrested Gonzalez Oct. 8 after a purported cross-country smuggling drive, from Las Vegas to the Philadelphia suburbs, and seized more than two pounds of cocaine from his car.
"He makes the perfect drug mule," First Assistant District Attorney Kevin Steele said. "He can't consent to a search. He can't answer any questions about the operation."
Of course, in this situation, he has an interest in minimizing the extent to which he might have learned either Mexican Sign Language or American Sign Language. However, it's certainly well documented that deaf people without access to a community of signers often grow up with very limited language abilities.
Some interesting discussion of how courts have struggled to deal with defendants who have "minimal language skills" ("MLS defendants") can be found in Brandon Tuck, "Preserving Facts, Form, and Function when a Deaf Witness with Minimal Language Skills Testifies in Court", University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 158:905 2010.
The case of Donald Lang, a deaf man accused of two murders in Chicago, is a well-publicized example of courts wrestling with this issue. Lang came from a poor black neighborhood in Chicago, never attended school, and never learned even a first language. Despite having what could have been the best attorney-defendant fit in lawyer Lowell Myers, who was himself deaf, Lang’s situation confounded the Illinois system. In no fewer than nine reported decisions, the courts wrestled with how to accommodate Lang. The crux of the issue was whether Lang was unfit to stand trial because he was linguistically incompetent and therefore unable to assist in his own defense. As a result, Lang fought for years against indefinite confinement in a mental institution despite his lack of any mental illness. In a similar case, the Louisiana Supreme Court approved of the involuntary commitment of James Williams, also deaf and nonlingual, without a trial because he lacked the ability to effectively communicate. These are not merely the results of yesteryear’s application of justice; courts continue to wrestle with deaf semilingual or nonlingual adults’ linguistic incompetency today.