21 Dec The Man Who Cut off His Wife’s Toe with a Machete
This is a cautionary tale about what can happen when you don’t have two interpreters for a trial. It’s also rather amusing in a macabre way, and I enjoy telling the story to people who ask me about the most unusual case I have ever worked on.
This all happened a very long time ago, when the profession was still developing standards and best practices. I was contracted by the Public Defender’s office to interpret at a trial for attempted murder. When I objected to being the only interpreter, they assured me it would be just a two-day trial at the very most, and that their client actually spoke pretty good English. He had lived quite a long time in the United States, they told me, and his common-law wife (the victim) was American. They said they just wanted me there for backup in case there was something the defendant did not understand. Ha! I really didn’t know any better.
Heck, I had been interpreting for almost a year, and had yet to get my teeth into a real trial. Most of my work was (and still is) interpreting attorney-client interviews and all kinds of pleas, from traffic cases to rape. I was dying to use my hard-won skills in simultaneous and consecutive interpreting in a courtroom setting. I jumped in with both feet.
I knew that things were not going to be easy at the first interview the attorney had with his client at the prison. The defendant, a Cuban gentleman (and I use the term “gentleman” loosely), had come to this country on the Mariel boatlift. I’ll call him Mr. Díaz. After many years living in the United States, he seemed to have forgotten most of his Spanish without acquiring very much English to replace it. Communications with his attorney were carried out by surly grunts, monosyllables, and a mixture of broken English and fractured Spanish. I interpreted everything the attorney said to him into Spanish, and did the best I could with his answers. To this day, I have no idea if he ever really understood anything that I interpreted to him, either then or at trial.
Here is a brief summary of the case. One late Saturday evening, Mr. Díaz ran out of beer, and asked his wife to go out and get him some more. Seeing that he was already in an advanced state of intoxication, the lady refused categorically. Then all hell broke loose. Mr. Díaz ran outside to grab his machete and proceeded to use it for purposes for which it was not actually intended. His goal, as he himself admitted at the police interrogation, was to take his wife’s head off. His first attempt ended with his severing an ornamental wooden pineapple from the bed post. The second resulted in his cutting off his wife’s right big toe at the large joint. Witnesses at the scene finally managed to subdue Mr. Díaz and called the police. For some reason, the toe ended up in the back yard, where the police finally found it some hours later, much too late to reattach it. Mercifully, it was not entered into evidence, although there were copious photographs. The pineapple, however, sat perkily at the prosecutor’s table throughout the trial.
You’d have thought this would have been a slam dunk. Why didn’t the guy just plead out? Why did he think he could win at trial? Well, in his opinion he had an ace in the hole. During one pre-trial conference, the attorney told him that his wife would be called to testify. An extraordinary expression came over his face, a kind of unholy glee. Amid his cackles (he was much given to cackling), he told the attorney that his wife would never testify against him, indeed that she would refuse to come to court at all. In fact, despite a no-contact order, she had been visiting him once a week at the prison, and had told him she wasn’t coming.
So we went to trial on a cold day in mid-December. It was an experience I hope never to repeat. It was grueling to interpret simultaneously hour after hour. I requested breaks from time to time, but I could see that the judge was not best pleased at these interruptions.
Every interpreter’s worst nightmare seemed to play out at that trial. The voir dire of the jury pool took almost an entire day. There was something wrong with the heating system and the place was freezing. The doctor who came to testify about the victim’s injuries had an extremely heavy accent in English, the kind you have to strain merely to understand, let alone interpret into another language. The prosecutor ran a video of the defendant’s police interview and the equipment kept breaking down. I wasn’t allowed to bring my own water, and I couldn’t seem to catch the bailiff’s eye to ask him to refill the pitcher.
The most frustrating thing of all, though, was that the defendant showed no sign of understanding anything at all in either language, but just glowered at everyone, from the judge to the jury members. The only time he reacted was when the police video showed him cackling away and saying (in broken English) that he was sorry he missed, and that he wished he had managed to cut his wife’s head off. Then he cracked a smile.
The only ordeal I was spared was having to interpret for Mr. Díaz on the stand. Wisely, defense counsel had convinced him to waive his right to testify. Hallelujah!
Well at the end of the first day, I was pretty tuckered out. After day two, I almost ran a red light on my way home. Then the third day rolled around.
As Mr. Díaz had predicted, his wife did not come to the trial, but at the end of the second day, the judge ordered her to be brought to court by force the following morning. Mr. Díaz’ lady love was led in, almost literally kicking and screaming. As she limped up the aisle, she insisted vociferously that she wasn’t goin’ to say nothin’ and nobody could make her. I admired her vocabulary and strove to match English expletive to its Spanish equivalent. When she finally reached the stand, the prosecutor asked her point blank if Mr. Díaz had cut off her toe. She lied blatantly, head high, swearing that he had not. The judge advised her as to the penalties of perjury, and she subsided momentarily, reiterating her intention not to say nothin’. I snuck a glance at the defendant and I was taken aback at the expression on his face. There was pride and admiration there. “What a woman!” he seemed to be thinking. As she left the stand she cast him a glance alight with triumph and, yes, love.
After defense and prosecution rested, the jury’s deliberations took about ten minutes. In spite of all the victim’s attempts to stand by her man, the verdict was guilty and the judge sentenced him to four years.
And what did I get out of it? The determination to never, never, never again be so foolish as to allow myself to be persuaded to interpret at a trial all by myself, and I never have. But I also learned something about pacing when interpreting simultaneously, about the need for adequate preparation, about keeping hydrated, about staying alert and ready for anything. And I also learned a little something that day about life and about human beings.
They were quite a pair those two.
Andrew Erickson. March, 2007. Team Interpreting In The Courtroom. National Association of Judicial Interpreters and Translators Position Paper. Eds. Nancy Festinger, Isabel Framer, Judith Kenigson Kristy. http://www.najit.org/publications/Team%20Interpreting_052007.pdf