Non-English speakers have right to serve, high court says
Judges and lawyers have a shared responsibility to ensure that non-English-speaking citizens can serve on state juries, the New Mexico Supreme Court stressed in an opinion filed Monday.
The court affirmed the first-degree murder and robbery convictions of Michael Anthony Samora, who bludgeoned his girlfriend to death in 2004. But the court said the dismissal of a Spanish-speaking juror in the case violated the New Mexico Constitution.
Article VII, Section 3 of the state Constitution guarantees that the right to sit on juries “shall never be restricted, abridged or impaired on account of … (the) inability to speak, read or write the English or Spanish languages.”
The opinion by Justice Charles Daniels says the dismissal of the juror in the Samora trial violated that section, but because the error was not raised at trial, it did not warrant reversal of Samora’s conviction.
A jury sitting before 2nd District Judge Kenneth Martinez took about an hour in 2008 to convict Samora of the Oct. 7, 2004, death of Mary Wiggs in the bedroom of their apartment on Silver SE. The jury also found Samora guilty of robbery, battery and two counts of tampering with evidence. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Wiggs, 38, suffered massive head wounds, probably from a steel pole slammed repeatedly into her head as she lay on the floor, though the pole was never recovered. She had multiple skull fractures, a broken nose, a broken rib and numerous defense wounds, Assistant District Attorney Alisha Maestas told the jury.
The attack left Samora’s shoes, jeans, belt and jacket spattered in blood.
Defense attorney Daniel Salazar accused the police of mismanaging the case and entering the apartment on Silver without probable cause.
The defense attorney for the appeal, Robert Tangora, raised multiple issues, including a speedy trial, lack of a DNA expert, improper comment by a state witness and ineffective assistance of counsel – all of which the Supreme Court called “insubstantial.”
In the Samora trial, a juror who said in his written questionnaire that he didn’t understand English well enough to write it was asked if he could proceed without an interpreter because the requested interpreter had mistakenly gone to another courtroom. The juror said he’d followed the discussion up to that point and the judge said the juror would have an interpreter if he were selected.
At the end of jury selection, the juror said he’d missed a lot of the questioning because he didn’t understand and the judge ultimately dismissed him after concluding he had been unable to participate in a meaningful way.
The defense objected, but not because the inability to understand English was an unlawful basis for dismissal. The prosecution argued for the juror’s dismissal.
The opinion for a unanimous court said New Mexico courts are required to make “every reasonable effort to accommodate a potential juror for whom language difficulties present a barrier,” pointing to a 2002 Supreme Court decision reversing convictions of two defendants because the district courts failed to provide Navajo interpreters, even though the nearest one was 2 1/2 hours away.
“At a minimum, voir dire should have been continued until the misdirected interpreter was brought to the correct court or a replacement interpreter secured,” the opinion said of the details in the Samora case.
Judges and attorneys on both sides of the courtroom have responsibilities in protecting the right of non-English-speaking jurors to participate in jury service, the opinion said.