When the cops arrested Mahamu Kanneh three years ago in suburban Washington, D.C., they thought they had a pretty good case, for an unthinkable crime. The 23-year-old Liberian immigrant was charged with seven counts involving a 7-year-old girl, including rape and molestation, and two counts of molesting an 18-month-old toddler.
Both girls were his relatives.
Last week, Montgomery County Maryland Circuit Court Judge Katherine Savage ordered that the charges be dropped, because in the two-and-a-half years since the indictment, the court had been unable to find an interpreter who spoke Kanneh's native language -- Vai -- and who could stay the course of the trial. And that, said the judge, violated Kanneh's right to a speedy trial. The Washington Post, which broke the story last week, reported that a court-appointed psychiatrist had recommended that an interpreter be used and the court found four interpreters, but that none worked out for various reasons.
Vai is an extremely rare language spoken by an estimated 100,000 people in Liberia and Sierra Leone, countries where English is the official language. But it's not so rare that you can't find an interpreter. What the court couldn't do in two-and-a-half years took us about two-and-a-half hours. On tonight's show, you'll meet our interpreter, a cultural anthropologist from Vai country, who speaks excellent English, Vai, several other African languages, not to mention Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish. He told us he would be willing to serve as a translator, because as a resident alien in the United States, he felt he could not refuse a request from a country where he is a guest. He lives less than 10 miles from the courthouse. He says he was never contacted by the court.
There are other serious questions about this case, such as, did Kanneh even need an interpreter?
The police say he spoke to them in English. The prosecutors say he attended Montgomery County Public Schools, where kids who don't speak English are put through rigorous English as a second language classes. We checked that out and were told that Kanneh graduated from an excellent county high school, Magruder High, in 2005. You can't graduate from Magruder unless you take four years of English. Kids who have trouble with English are assigned to English for Speakers of Other Languages courses, also known as ESOL classes. Kanneh, we were told, never did an ESOL course, an indication his teachers at least thought his English was good enough.
We also talked to a man who lives across the hall from Kanneh in a small Rockville apartment building. He said he's spoken to Kanneh briefly on several occasions and that his English was just fine.
We asked for an interview with the judge, with the court clerk responsible for finding interpreters, and with kanneh's attorney. All declined because the Montgomery County State's Attorney is appealing the judge's ruling. But if that appeal fails, Kanneh cannot be prosecuted on the original charges. He'll either be a guilty man walking free, or an innocent man with a terrible reputation. Either way, justice has not been served.
-- By Steve Turnham, CNN Producer