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Verdict in key child-sex trial at risk

Attorneys for an ex-Marine convicted of abusing underage girls in Cambodia say a Vietnamese interpreter was having an affair with a federal agent, undermining their case.

November 20, 2010|By Scott Glover, Los Angeles Times

A costly and emotionally charged child sex case in which prosecutors traveled to Cambodia and paid to fly frightened young victims to the United States is under fire by defense attorneys amid allegations that court interpreters were biased in favor of the prosecution.

One of the interpreters assigned to the case of Michael Joseph Pepe admitted being involved in a sexual relationship with the lead investigator around the time the case went to trial in May 2008, according to documents filed in federal court in Los Angeles.

Pepe, a retired U.S. Marine captain who was working as a teacher in Cambodia, was convicted of having sex with seven girls ages 9 to 12. The girls, speaking through Vietnamese and Khmer interpreters, testified that Pepe drugged, bound, beat and raped them in his compound in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.

After Pepe's conviction, prosecutors discovered and disclosed the relationship between interpreter Ann Luong Spiratos and Gary J. Phillips, a special agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Following the disclosure, Pepe's defense attorneys asked U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer for a new trial, arguing that the "secret … sexual relationship" between Spiratos and Phillips resulted in skewed interpretations by Spiratos and a colleague, which aided the prosecution and undermined the defense.

"Only after Mr. Pepe was convicted did the defense learn that the Vietnamese language interpreter was not the disinterested interpreter that she appeared," wrote deputy federal public defender Charles C. Brown. "We now know that what the jury heard during the trial was not what the witnesses said but what the interpreters said they said." Brown argued that Spiratos' alleged bias spread to another interpreter she brought in to work on the case.

As a result of the controversy, Pepe's sentencing has been postponed. The motion for a new trial has been pending before Fischer for nearly four months.

Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, said prosecutors hired experts who reviewed the translations after the trial and found no substantive differences between witnesses' testimony and what the interpreters said aloud in court. He said some of the interpretations questioned by the defense experts were done by an interpreter other than Spiratos who had no reason to put her career at risk by manipulating witnesses' testimony.

In a recent interview with The Times, Spiratos said her interpretations were unbiased.

In a hearing earlier this year, Fischer expressed concerns about the objectivity of a defense expert who was critical of interpretations by Spiratos and a fellow interpreter she brought on to help with the case. Fischer ordered prosecutors and defense attorneys to meet and attempt to reach an agreement about what discrepancies — if any — exist between the testimony and translations in order to help her decide how to proceed with the case.

The defense's new trial motion also hinted at improper conduct by one of the federal prosecutors on the case. According to the court papers, Phillips, the ICE agent, said that Assistant U.S. Atty. John Lulejian encouraged him to become involved with Spiratos. [The prosecutor and agent are not named in the court filing, but sources close to the case have confirmed their identities.]

"Wait till you see who I hired … she is Vietnamese and is very hot," Phillips said the prosecutor told him, according to a declaration he submitted to the court.

Phillips said Lulejian twice told him he should "take care" of Spiratos, an apparent reference to having sex with her, according to court papers. Phillips added that Lulejian himself was "enamored" with Spiratos and that the prosecutor showed him photographs of her that he had on his phone.

Phillips, who is the subject of an ongoing internal investigation by ICE, declined to comment through an agency spokeswoman.

Lulejian also declined to comment for this article. According to the court papers, he said he had a "professional and platonic" relationship with Spiratos and did nothing to facilitate a romantic relationship between her and Phillips.

The issue has tainted what was once a celebrated case within the Department of Justice. The prosecution team, including Phillips and Lulejian, was given distinguished service awards last year by Atty. Gen. Eric Holder for its work on the case. The situation also seems to have angered Fischer, who refused to allow defense attorneys to file their motion under seal.

"This case received media attention — at least some of which was initiated by the government. This prosecution consumed a significant amount of public funds," the judge wrote in July. "Concealing the basis for the motion — or the ruling — would promote distrust of the judicial process."

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