Friday, August 17, 2001
Testimony by Court Interpreter Leads to Reversal of Burglary Conviction
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A Ventura Superior Court judge committed reversible error by allowing a court interpreter to testify that the accused child molester for whom she was translating was moving his hand across his groin area while the alleged victim was testifying, the Court of Appeal for this district has ruled.
In an opinion released yesterday, Div. Six overturned the conviction of Juan Chavez Leon on a burglary charge, but affirmed his convictions on related charges of child molestation, false imprisonment, and witness tampering. Reversed along with the burglary conviction was an enhancement to the molestation sentence for entering the victim’s home with intent to commit the offense.
Leon, a gardener, was accused by the 12-year-old daughter of a customer of coming into the house under the guise of getting his check, trying to force her to have sex with him, then grabbing her hair, giving her $10 and warning her “don’t tell nobody.”
The prosecutor called Rebecca Rubinstein, the court interpreter, to testify after hearing Rubinstein tell the bailiff that the defendant was opening and closing his fingers over the crotch area of his pants during the girl’s testimony. Judge Alan Steele, a retired judge sitting on assignment, denied a defense motion to exclude the testimony under Evidence Code Sec. 352.
The trial judge abused his discretion in denying the motion, Presiding Justice Arthur Gilbert wrote for Div. Six.
The prosecution, Gilbert reasoned, failed to establish “how Leon’s actions in court were relevant to his intent when he entered the house.” Besides, he said, it was never made clear exactly what Leon was doing while the interpreter was watching, so “the probative value, at best, was weak.”
The prejudice was exacerbated, Gilbert said, when the prosecutor argued to the jury that the defendant was “so turned on by the mere sight of [the girl] in court that he’s masturbating.” The argument was so inflammatory, the appellate jurist noted, it drove one juror to write a note suggesting the defendant be deported.
The trial judge should also have taken into consideration the impact on the jury of having the interpreter go from the defense table to the witness box, potentially leading “jurors to conclude that part of the defense team thought he was guilty,” Gilbert said.
The error, the jurist went on to say, requires that the burglary conviction and the sentence enhancement be reversed because they were largely dependent on circumstantial evidence. The other convictions stand, Gilbert said, because the evidence of those crimes “was so substantial that error in the admission of Rubinstein’s testimony was harmless on those counts.”
The case is People v. Leon, B140721.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company