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Rights of Deaf Man Trial Issue

Defense argues the interrogation of the Laguna Hills murder suspect was improperly done and should be thrown out.

September 04, 2003|Mai Tran | Times Staff Writer

A defense lawyer on Wednesday asked that a critical police interrogation of a deaf man accused of killing a 17-year-old neighbor be tossed out because her client has only rudimentary sign-language skills and did not understand his rights.

Christopher Hearn, 22, is accused of fatally stabbing Kenneth Chiu in a fit of racial hatred about midnight July 30, 2001. Prosecutors contend Hearn expressed hatred for Asians and other minorities during an interrogation shortly after the killing.

Chiu apparently was returning from a date when he was attacked on the front lawn of his family's Laguna Hills home. The teen's father, concerned about his son's whereabouts, called Chiu's cell phone. Several seconds later, the father heard the phone ringing on the front lawn, where he found his son fatally injured.

Moments before he died, the teen said Hearn -- who lives with his family next door -- was his assailant, police say.

Chiu's family members have also said they suspect that Hearn was responsible for previous racially tinged acts of vandalism against them.

Hearn has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to a charge of murder, with two special circumstances of lying in wait and killing because of ethnicity.

In a hearing on the eve of trial Wednesday, lawyers sparred over evidence in the case -- in particular, statements Hearn made to police. Orange County Superior Court Judge Kazuharu Makino is expected to rule today whether the interrogation should be thrown out.

An interpreter, called to the scene by sheriff's deputies about 3 a.m., used sign language to inform Hearn of his rights and relay his responses. Authorities have not revealed what reply Hearn -- who can neither hear nor speak -- gave, though a partial transcript read in court Wednesday included rambling expressions of hatred directed at minorities.

Benjamin Wilson, a sign-language interpreter for the state's Department of Rehabilitation in Riverside, said he signed to Hearn, notifying him that anything he said could be used against him in court and that if he didn't have an attorney, one would be appointed to him. Hearn was also given his Miranda rights in writing.

"You will be questioned. You have a right not to answer," Wilson testified he told Hearn in sign language. Asked if he understood, Hearn replied, "I think so," Wilson said.

Deputy Public Defender Lisa Kopelman challenged the legitimacy of the Miranda warning because Wilson's translation did not reflect its literal wording.

But Wilson testified that a literal translation was impossible. "It wouldn't be right to tell him that he has a right to be silent because he doesn't speak," he said. Wilson and other sign language experts testified that some words must be changed if there is no direct translation, and to accommodate a deaf person's skill level with the English language and American Sign Language.

Lawrence Fleischer, an interpreter who is hearing-impaired and translated the police interrogation videotape for the court, also raised questions about how Wilson translated Hearn's responses to deputies. Wilson did not translate the suspect's facial expressions and body gestures, which are regarded as important elements of a deaf person's communication.

Aside from the issues of translation, Kopelman argued that Hearn was not capable of understanding his rights. Hearn, who graduated in 1999 from a program for the deaf at University High School in Irvine, had the reading skills of a second-grader and language skills of a fourth-grader, testified John Levy, principal of the program.

In arguing that the interrogation should remain as evidence, Deputy Dist. Atty. Carolyn Carlisle-Raines contended Hearn was able to earn a high grade-point average since middle school and played football.

The case highlights the unusual difficulties that can plague deaf defendants, witnesses and jurors.

In several cases, attorneys defending deaf people have argued that their clients were at a disadvantage because jurors couldn't hear the inflection or emotion in their voice. Cross-examination, when a witness can be subjected to rapid and withering questioning, also has been an issue.

In one case in Pittsburgh, lawyers argued that a deaf man failed a field sobriety test because of the officer's unskilled efforts at using sign language.

"Between deaf people, there are rarely miscommunications," said Ed Kelly, director of the Orange County Deaf Equal Access Foundation, which advocates for deaf people who need to appear in public settings.

But "there can be [misunderstandings] between a deaf person and a hearing person who has learned sign language," he said.

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Times staff writer Jennifer Mena contributed to this report.

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