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Justices remand to see if defendant had accurate interpreting

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The Indiana Supreme Court ordered the post-conviction court to hold a new hearing for a Mexican man who claimed he didn’t mean to plead guilty to two felonies and did so only because of faulty interpreting in court.

Efren Diaz, whose native language is Spanish, was arrested and charged with two felony drug possession counts. His attorney, David Newman, used the firm’s interpreter to communicate with Diaz. Beatrice Lara was appointed by the court as the interpreter for the guilty plea hearing. She was a native English speaker but said she learned Spanish from her father and translated for courts about 20 times.

During the hearing, Diaz claimed to understand what was being interpreted to him and pleaded guilty to the two charges. After reading a newspaper article about his plea, he questioned whether he actually understood that he was pleading guilty to two counts; he intended to plead guilty to just one. He believed the guilty plea hearing hadn’t been properly translated.

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed on direct appeal, but remanded for re-sentencing. During his hearing before the post-conviction court, the court wouldn’t allow a chart into evidence prepared by his witness, Christina Courtright, a certified interpreter with the Indiana Supreme Court’s Division of State Court Administration. Her chart illustrated her conclusions that there were problems with the interpretation of the hearing and showed the English words spoken by the trial judge and the English equivalent of what the interpreter actually said in Spanish. The post-conviction court didn’t allow it on the basis of hearsay and denied his petition for relief.

In Efren R. Diaz v. State of Indiana, No. 20S05-0911-PC-521, the justices agreed that the chart should have been admitted. Courtright’s benefit of her expertise was hindered by the exclusion of the chart, which was a demonstrative exhibit prepared to facilitate a complete and accurate summary of her conclusions after reviewing the recording of Diaz’s guilty plea hearing.

The state admitted that there was evidence of a "mix up” in the translation at the guilty plea hearing, but the evidence taken as a whole shows Diaz understood the guilty plea hearing. Diaz repeatedly said he had no trouble understanding the court at the time of his plea.

“Although Diaz answered that he did not, one may fully understand and even acknowledge to others an understanding of what is in actuality an inaccurate interpretation of the proceedings. Put another way, one can understand perfectly the words spoken by an interpreter who tells you the wrong thing,” wrote Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard.

The high court concluded that just as procedures contemplate appointing independent psychiatrists when a court doubts a defendant’s competence to stand trial, the court may need to appoint its own competent, disinterested expert when it has reason to believe there is an interpretation issue.

Since the evidence before the post-conviction court doesn’t reveal whether Diaz was provided with accurate interpreting, the justices ordered the trial court to commission its own translation of the plea and sentencing hearings, then the post-conviction court will rehear the evidence the parties find pertinent to the question of whether Diaz’s plea was voluntary and intelligent.

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