Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Liberian rapist let go because an interpreter fluent in the suspect's native language could not be found

Ernesto LondoƱo:

Mahamu Kanneh

A 7-year-old girl said she had been raped and repeatedly molested over the course of a year. Police in Montgomery County, acting on information from a relative, soon arrested a Liberian immigrant living in Gaithersburg. They marshaled witnesses and DNA evidence to prepare for trial.

What was missing -- for much of the nearly three years that followed -- was an interpreter fluent in the suspect's native language. A judge recently dropped the charges, not because she found that Mahamu Kanneh had been wrongly accused but because repeated delays in the case had, in her view, violated his right to a speedy trial.

"This is one of the most difficult decisions I've had to make in a long time," Katherine D. Savage said from the bench Tuesday, noting that she was mindful of "the gravity of this case and the community's concern about offenses of this type."

Loretta E. Knight, the Circuit Court clerk responsible for finding interpreters, said her office searched exhaustively for a speaker of Vai, a tribal language spoken in West Africa. They contacted the Liberian Embassy, she said, and courts in all but three states. Linguists estimate that 100,000 people speak Vai, mostly in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

In arguing to save the case, Assistant State's Attorney Maura Lynch said that dismissing the indictment "after all the efforts the state has made to accommodate the defendant would be fundamentally unfair."

Prosecutors, who cannot refile the charges against Kanneh, are considering whether to appeal Savage's ruling. Kanneh was granted asylum in the United States, according to State's Attorney John McCarthy. A conviction could have led to deportation proceedings.

His attorney, Theresa Chernosky, declined to comment. Delays were compounded by a dispute about whether Kanneh required an interpreter at all.

In Montgomery and elsewhere, the proliferation of languages resulting from immigration is presenting courts with a novel challenge, legal and linguistics experts say. Rarely, however, does a court have such difficulty finding an interpreter that a criminal case must be dropped.

Court interpreters and linguists say a national database of court interpreters would help quickly locate people fluent in uncommon languages. "The burden of increased requests for rare languages makes it a necessity," said Nataly Kelly, author of a book on interpreting.

Knight said the county spent nearly $1 million on interpreters last year, 10 times the amount it spent in 2000. "It's a constant struggle, and it is extremely expensive," she said.

Kanneh was arrested in August 2004 after witnesses told police that he raped and repeatedly sexually molested the girl, a relative.

Prosecutors Challenge Dismissal

Kanneh update: The indictment

Rape Suspect Also Accused of Abusing 18-Month-Old

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