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Ruling Delayed in Trial of Deaf Suspect

Defense attorney wants interrogation excluded, saying her client did not understand his rights.

September 05, 2003|Mai Tran | Times Staff Writer

A judge Thursday delayed ruling on a defense plea to toss out a police interrogation that's key to a murder case against a deaf Laguna Hills man accused of fatally stabbing his 17-year-old neighbor.

The defense contends that Christopher Hearn, 22, did not understand his Miranda rights when deputies interrogated him shortly after his arrest.

Deputy Public Defender Lisa Kopelman argued that Hearn -- who has been deaf since birth and cannot speak -- has only fundamental English and American Sign Language skills. During a second day of arguments Thursday, a defense expert said that the interpreter authorities used did not accurately translate the sign language.

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. He is accused of fatally stabbing Kenneth Chiu about midnight July 30, 2001, in a fit of racial hatred moments after Chiu arrived home from a date. Police said Chiu identified his attacker to them before he died. Hearn was arrested and provided statements during an interrogation.

The videotaped interrogation is considered key evidence that the attack was racially motivated and would qualify Hearn for the death penalty, if he is convicted. In the tape, Hearn allegedly expressed hatred for minority groups.

Before trial begins Monday, Orange County Superior Court Judge Kazuharu Makino is expected to rule whether the interrogation will be admitted.

Defense attorneys contend that the sign language used was misinterpreted. Sign language interpreters for the defense have tried to review the translations, but the video shows the interpreter's back, and the use of his hands cannot be seen clearly.

McCay Vernon, a psychologist specializing in issues concerning deaf culture and a psychology professor emeritus at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., testified that Hearn didn't understand his rights because the interpreter spent only about a minute to explain them, adding: "Good interpreting takes a long time."

Kopelman also argued Thursday that Benjamin Wilson, who provided sign language interpretations to Hearn during the interrogation, was not yet certified to interpret in criminal cases and had failed to "warm up" with Hearn to learn his language level. Wilson also failed to tell deputies that Hearn has poor reading skills when deputies gave him his Miranda rights in writing, she said.

Wilson testified that Hearn was explained his rights in sign language and by writing and "did not want clarifications." Wilson said Hearn "was comprehensive in his answers" and "communicated very effectively."

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