Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Child rape case falls apart on technicality
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
Posted By CNN: 4:03 PM ET
What on Earth can any of us say. Political correctness gone insane? I'm beginning to see a country where we've lost all common sense. To let someone off the hook for a terrible crime because of no interpreter? Let's put it this way, he could have been taught enough English in two years to understand his rights and many more laws 100 times over. No excuse for this one. None
Posted By Lorie Ann, Buellton, Calif. : 4:59 PM ET
How on earth could the justice system fail so miserably? That is sick. I can't believe this kind of stuff goes on, but I suppose it does everyday. What goes around comes around, I hope.
Posted By Jess, Paris, KY : 5:01 PM ET
For Heaven's sake, someone tell me (and the courts) how Kanneh managed to communicate at all in all the years he was here!

Obviously he was never ill, hungry, or in need of a place to live. This piece of garbage needs to be taken to the dump and buried, along with the other garbage.

Posted By Maggie, GVMO : 5:07 PM ET
This is sad…..especially when you think about the fact that Genarlow Wilson is still being jerked around by the legal profession and is still in jail for having consensual oral sex with a minor. It sickens me that the journalist in the area had no problems finding someone that could speak this mans language but the legal system cannot.

Of course those responsible will not be commenting on this, besides what could they say?

Garry…..isn’t it true that he has been in this country for a long time and actually went to high school here? You can’t tell me he doesn’t understand some of the language.

Keeping them honest....what's going to happen if next time he kills the girl? Can the next victum not only go after the rapist btu the legal profession that let him go?
Posted By Marcy B. Mobile, AL : 5:19 PM ET
What about the rights of the now 9 and half year old and four and half year old who were raped and molested? Are the victims "slipping through the cracks" or is the accused?

I am glad the judge's ruling is on appeal. Is there some kind of statute of limitation on rape and molestation?

Please, this is not about an interpreter; this is about the failure of a local judicial system.

Could Mahamu Kanneh have some kind of diplomatic ammunity? Is this really about timing of the courts? Has this man sat in jail for 2 and half years?

I know, innocent until proven guilt. Either way, the courts failed by alluding both the accused and the victims.
Posted By Liz from Milwaukee : 5:23 PM ET
I don't get it. A court appointed *psychiatrist* was the one who decided that the defendant needed an interpreter? Since when do members of the medical profession determine a person's fluency in English? Maybe the defendant was just being uncooperative with the psychiatrist - it would hardly be the first time that has happened. Someone needs to lose their job over this. I hope the appeal is successful and doesn't take yet another two-and-a-half years!
Posted By Barbara, Culver City, CA : 5:24 PM ET
Can I say some few words? This man is soo lucky that he is in united states, we all know that those who do this kind of inhumane acts, i.e Africa, are those who are fighting for power and don't care about others, kids or adults and have weapons to protect themselves. Now, If he was just, just a normal citizen in his home country, and he commits this kind of barbaric act? he would've been dead. You got to be kidding me! they let him go? because of the language barrier? and he went to high school here? I was able to understand english in the first three months after I arrived in united states and I didn't even speak it before back home in Africa, cause we speak the native language. And you want to tell me up to this day he doesn't understand it? How can someone like him who got this great opportunity of living here and now he MOCKS the law? Seriously, he's so lucky that he's in states. (see! my english wasn't that bad)
Posted By mutu, Boston, Ma : 5:52 PM ET
It sounds to me like the court was lazy and didn't want to look too hard for an interpreter who would work out. Who made the determination that this guy even needed an interpreter? Sounds like this case slipped through the cracks and now because time is running out they are going to wash their hands of the matter. And those two little girls have been violated in the worst way with no justice done. What a travesty of justice. Then again, if the jails are overcrowded, maybe he would be let out anyway. Double travesty.
Posted By Charlotte D, Stockton Ca : 6:06 PM ET
There is a serious problem with the justice system in our country, and the problem starts with the judges. I have a family member who works for the court house in our county and on various occasions, I have been told that justice is not being served. I believe it is mostly because of the fact that the judges are too lenient with defendants, whether it be for an over due traffic ticket, a minor misdemeanor or a violent crime. Not only are the judges being to lenient they are also spread too thin. They hear the same thing over and over again all day; defendants pleading their innocence and sometimes a judge can merely get burned out. However I don’t but all the blame on the judges, the Public Defendant, who represents the people, did not, in this situation, purse the case the way he or she should have. In two and half years, they couldn’t find an interpreter but some how CNN found one in two and half hours, come on! That Public Defendant didn’t do his job! Another thing I would have to bring up is how did the defendant’s defense attorney speak to him? The attorney obviously didn’t speak Kanneh’s native language of Vai, and according to the court, Kanneh didn’t speak English, so how did this defendant communicate with his attorney and visa versa? This is why there is so much crime in our country because guilty people are being let to roam about, because the justice system is failing! It’s ridiculous and disheartening!
Posted By Jessica, Bourbonnais Illinois : 6:18 PM ET
By federal law (at least for ESOL purposes), he would have to be tested and exempted from special English if he did not need it. If the school does not have difinitive, recorded (in writing) test results as to his language ability, the school has broken federal law. Anyone whose home language is not English is automatically in ESOL and must test out of it, not vice versa. Someone, including the reporter on this story, should have checked school records instead of making an assumption about language ability.

It makes me sick to think that a translator could not be found? Maybe the gov't. shouldn't have fired all of those gay translators.

None of this makes any difference to the little girl or her family and to the children who are at risk because there's a child rapist out there, if indeed the guy is guilty.

Mutu, I understand your English perfectly. Good job.
Posted By Gypsy, an American in Mexico : 6:32 PM ET
Not only this is an outrage, it smells of collusion. If it is true that he speaks good English or that there are available interpreters around, there is no reason why the charges should be dropped. With all the publicity surrounding this case now, I wouldn’t be surprised the appeal will be upheld.
Posted By Lilibeth, Edmonds, WA : 6:35 PM ET
Just another example of the justice system played like a fiddle by the "alleged" accused and attorneys.
Again,who pays the price?!??!The victims!! I'm so tired of hearing such stupidities. This is a non-sense!!
What about the girls? Are they being protected? Is he back in their surroundings?
You know,I'm Canadian,but our justice system is just as stupid as yours.
Lots of rights for the accused,almost none for the victims AND they almost are always humiliated in court by the defense.
I understand that some are accused and sent to jail by mistake. But we have to find a middle ground where the victims'rights will be as protected as the alleged accused.
Let's face it.If the man had done a crime against "money",they would have found an interpreter!!But hey,it's just kids,right??Am I being a cynic?No,just check the sentences if you do something illegal with money versus if you do something to a child.

Joanne R.
Laval Quebec
Posted By Joanne R.Laval Quebec : 6:55 PM ET
Welcome to the new world. Let crimnals go free because they act ignorant of a languge used to teach him throughout their educationin the schools attended.

No problem, then he should be put in some sort of insitution until he learns the language and not allowed to be among the free!

The law knows he has done something wrong, and he can not be held until they find an interpreter? Where are the child protection groups when they are needed? I bet this case will change their opinion of the court system and how it protects our children!

(Though I don't agree, but here is a case the law should be taken into our own hands!)

To me, it sounds likes like he was set free to endanger other lives throughout the community - didn't they just confine some guy with TB because he was a health threat?

What is the difference here?
Posted By Charlie Bean, Eureka, Califonia : 7:42 PM ET
If his English was good enough to get through high school and communicate with his neighbors why did the psychiatrist recommend a translator? Did the dr. not speak to him in English?

And the courts were not able to find a translator in 2 1/2 years yet CNN could in less than a day?

This is crazy. I hope the man that will translate has been made available to the folks appealing this case. And I hope they win and he is prosecuted. IF he is not, then he is a very fortunate man - too bad his victim was not as fortunate.
Posted By Annie Kate, Birmingham AL : 9:34 PM ET
I went to school in Montgomery County and there's no way you'd be able to graduate if you don't speak English at all, or in this case not well enough to stand trial. And even if he did need an interpreter, in DC, this certainly isn't difficult as CNN has proven! There's more to this story, I hope you'll be able to discover the truth.

My heart goes out to these young girls whose lives will never be the same. This appeal must go through, if for no other reason than to help these two children find a small amount of peace, if that's possible.
Posted By Jennifer, Washington, DC : 9:41 PM ET
I can not believe that in this time and age of our great democracy, our protectors of freedom can't seem to find what is right under their noses. It is a mockery to justice that our judicial system was unable to find an interpreter in a two in a half year span. Will there be any justice for the victims and their family. It seems to me that they were victimized all over again. What is the country coming to, or should I say; what are we (this country) reverting to(idiots).
Posted By James - Memphis, TN : 11:06 PM ET
I think it's scandalous that this person was allowed to walk free, but to paraphrase Hillary Clinton:CNN's solution to the problem are naive and irresponsible. Translators are trained professionals. They study, take a test and receive a certification. You can't pull an anthropoligist off the street and have him serve as an interpreter, no matter how impressed Gary Tuchman is with his English! I can say "swimming" in English, French and Spanish. That doesn't make me an interpreter!

The suggestion that a layman can serve as an interpreter is even more outrageous with crimes and penalties as serious as the ones charged. Furthermore, the fact that you can speak English well enough to make a purchase at 7-Eleven or say "good morning" to your neighbor, does not mean that you can dispense with an interpreter in a legal proceeding. There will be complicated terms used at the trial, both legal and medical. Certainly, there will be expert DNA analysis, jury instructions, sentencing instructions. A true interpreter does more than translate the word "swimming" he converts intricate, technical English words and phrases into something the foreign speaker can understand.

Don't get me wrong. If Kenneh is guilty, I think he deserves the electric chair, but don't pooh pooh the need for a PROFESSIONAL translator at a criminal trial. I'd rather have seen CNN investigate the funding it would have taken to bring a professional in from outside the region, rather than proposing makeshift suggestions that undercut the right to a fair trial.
Posted By Michele Jackson, Northridge, CA : 12:11 AM ET
For me it is hard not to be judgmental on the following: Whomever was involved in the investigation, did not care enough for -or was indifferent to the suffering of rape-victims. I am shocked on how poorly background investigation was done on a rapist, especially if this offendor is not American.
Posted By Ratna, New York, NY : 1:47 PM ET
In response to Michele Jackson's comment, there are plenty of people in this country who were born and bred here and have spoken English since day one who would not understand much of what is said in a criminal trial, and they don't get interpreters. The accused (or accusor) does not need to have a college level understanding of English in order to stand trial. That is what lawyers are for. They worry about the tricky stuff (which this guy's lawyer obviously has since he was able to stave off this trial for 2 years) and all the interpreter has to do is explain to the accused, in words he can understand, what is happening.

I think it is outrageous that, after 2 years, no solution has been found to bring this person to trial. Whether he is guilty or not, it is reprehensible that the 2 little girls in this case have not had THEIR day in court, let alone the accused having his.
Posted By Todd Dover, NH : 3:03 PM ET
Difference Between Speaker of Vai and English, and Vai/English Interpreter

As a practicing and Federally certified Spanish court interpreter in the Washington D.C. area, I am surprised that no effort seems to have been made to train the speakers of Vai and English identified for the Montgomery County, MD area case. Over a period of three years, there was ample time to train the candidates to meet the requirements and challenges of an impending trial. In fact, over a period of three years, these candidates could have undergone a full training program at the Monterey Institute for International Studies! In the alternative, the candidates could have been trained by master interpreters like Ms. Teresa C. Salazar, Director of Interpreting Services at U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and Ms. Nancy Festinger, Director of Interpreting Services for the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. This type of training for suitable candidates can be accomplished over a period of weeks. I have seen Ms. Salazar prepare candidates in Indonesian and Kinyarwandan. I have observed Ms. Salazar locate a speaker of Wayuu and Spanish for a case in her venue. After language services were put in place, the defendant pleaded guilty and the case did not go to trial.

When interpreters in rare languages are required, sometimes there is no alternative but to train candidates and assist them in gathering the resources needed for the task at hand. That an interpreter withdrew upon finding out in the court room about the subject matter of the case, tells me that this speaker of Vai and English had no preparation at all - not even knowledge about what the case dealt with.

This is where the proverbial ball was dropped in Montgomery County, MD, by the Court and the staff that attempted to locate Vai interpreters when there were none to be found.

There may be cases for which no candidates are available. For the trial in question there were candidates and ample time for training. The system failed.
Posted By Gladys Segal, Bethesda, MD : 10:54 AM ET
Following is a letter from NAJIT (National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators) and ATA (American Translators' Association):

The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters & Translators
The American Translators Association
In re: Washington Post Story by Ernesto Londoño Saturday, July 21, 2007
“Md. Judge Dismisses Abuse Charges: Clerk Was Unable To Find Interpreter”
A criminal case in Maryland that was dismissed for lack of an interpreter has been widely
covered in the news media. In our organizations’ view, this case is an unfortunate symbol of a
systemic problem that affects our entire country, a problem for which we all share responsibility:
the need for language professionals to be identified and readily available to serve our courts and
justice partners.
We represent two national organizations, the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and
Translators (NAJIT) and the American Translators Association (ATA), that have made great
efforts to network with community and government entities to make them aware of our extensive
networks of language professionals. On occasion our advocacy efforts have been successful but
our overtures have also sometimes been dismissed.
When a language barrier exists and a person’s liberty or a victim’s life is at stake, it is always best
to err on the side of caution by appointing a competent interpreter. When state or federal
authorities are unprepared, uninformed or unwilling to find a way to resolve a language barrier,
the courts are poorly served, defendants’ rights are unprotected, victims are doubly victimized,
and our justice system suffers.
Information on how to tap into available language resources is vital to the effective functions of
our court systems. Any court or justice-related department that lacks policies for dealing with the
limited English proficient persons is poorly equipped to deal with the demographic realities of the
21st century.
ATA and NAJIT may not always be able to identify certified or qualified interpreters and
translators in every language through our membership directories, but we have the means to
quickly survey our members, network with local sister organizations and other government
entities, or exchange knowledge with community and private sector agencies to assist in locating
needed interpreters or translators.
Courts and other justice partners often say that they do not have the funding to extend searches or
to contract with service providers beyond their jurisdiction. They say that they are unable to
assess an individual’s language proficiency. They say that they cannot train bilinguals to function
as language links in cases where experienced court interpreters are difficult to find. This is
exactly why policies need to be established outlining the various options in cases of urgent need.
Our organizations consist not only of certified and qualified interpreters and translators but also
Ph.D. linguists, expert consultants, trainers and expert witnesses. These interpreter experts are
available to help the justice entities develop policies and procedures for training bilinguals of less
common languages in a relatively short period of time to adequately interpret court proceedings.
The ability to comprehend a court proceeding is not an immigration issue or an English-only
issue; it is a matter of fundamental fairness and due process.
September 11th alerted us to our pressing language needs and the need to have organized lists of
qualified interpreters and translators. Katrina reminded us once more, and although efforts have
been made to correct some of our deficiencies, as a nation we are not there yet.
We need to begin to develop the connective tissue between professional organizations of
language providers and governmental agencies. We need to promote the flow of best practices
and information so that the language communication barriers can be resolved quickly and
effectively. We need national standards. We need to support funding for court interpreter
programs such as Senator Kohl’s bill, S. 702, to authorize the Attorney General to award grants to
state courts to develop and implement state court interpreter programs.
We need to support the recruitment and training of interpreters and to certify interpreters in many
languages other than Spanish. We need to create and fund certification exams in languages for
which certification does not currently exist. Lastly, we need to offer incentives to recruit and
retain already certified and qualified interpreters and translators.
The courts, the defense, the prosecutors’ offices, and law enforcement agencies all need to
establish language assistance processes that work accurately and effectively. Only when the
justice system taps into existing networks of language professionals to seek out potential
interpreters, will shocking situations such as the Mahamu Kanneth case be avoided.
“There is nothing easy about any trial where liberty is at stake and a victim is at
loss. It is even less so when there are multiple languages involved. However,
fundamental due process requires a level playing field, and that all persons
answering to the law of the land be given a similar opportunity to answer. A
Movant is entitled to such fairness regardless of his ability to speak and
comprehend English. Perfect understanding is not required to mete fairness, but
a reasonable understanding is.”1
NAJIT has prepared a position paper entitled “Preparing Interpreters in Rare Languages” which
bears upon the current situation:
For more information, contact NAJIT at; contact ATA at
Isabel Framer, Chair of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators
Marian S. Greenfield, President of the American Translators Association
Posted By Gladys Segal, Bethesda, MD : 10:59 AM ET
I think everyone is overreacting. Isn't this the same country where politicians lie, lie, lie and when caught, lie some more-most without anything at all happening to them? Most courts are under funded and their workers overworked. Things similar to this happen all the time. I agree: it is disgusting; but, I don't see anyone in a hurry to make things better. For those that think it's a problem with judges, I disagree. They just try to follow the law and constitution. It seems just as many people go to jail for crimes they did not commit as people who get off for crimes they did commit. Many more get out of jail early because of overcrowding. We incarcerate more citizens per capita than any other nation in the modern world. Most of them for commiting crimes related directly to gaining money. Over 90% of them are poor. This incident is just another example of how our social, economic, judicial and political systems are failing. What are you doing about it?
Posted By Keith, Tallahassee, FL : 2:02 PM ET
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