New York: In Brooklyn, Language Barrier Derails a Trial

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Oct 22 12:38:28 UTC 2008

October 21, 2008, 4:30 pm

In Brooklyn, Language Barrier Derails a Trial

By Andy Newman

Everything was ready to go in the 21st-floor courtroom in State
Supreme Court in Brooklyn. The defendant sat beside his lawyer. The
prosecutor clutched her file of complaints and evidence. The judge was
on the bench. The jurors — including, for what it's worth, this
reporter — waited in their box for the legal proceedings to unfold.
But the trial of Mamadou Bah, charged with stabbing a man in the chest
at a Brooklyn restaurant in 2006, came to an abrupt end on Monday.
Missing: one Fula interpreter. Fula is the most widely spoken
indigenous language in the West African nation of Guinea, with more
than three million speakers. There are thousands of Guinean immigrants
in New York, many of whom, like Mr. Bah, are presumably fluent only in

But a week into the preliminary stages of Mr. Bah's trial, the court
system still had not been able to find a qualified Fula interpreter.
And so Justice Albert Tomei declared a mistrial, and Mr. Bah, a
30-year-old store clerk who has been free on bail, walked out of the
courtroom. The jurors went back to ordinary lives where they are not
required to stand in judgment of their fellow man. It is very rare for
a language barrier to halt the wheels of justice, even in a polyglot
place like New York. The courts have full-time interpreters in 40
languages and per-diem interpreters in 300 more, including Fula, said
David Bookstaver, courts spokesman. But when Mr. Bah's assigned
interpreter turned out not to be suitable, a replacement could not
quickly be found, he said.

Defendants like Mr. Bah do not enjoy any sort of linguistic immunity,
however: He is due back in court on Wednesday for a status conference,
and prosecutors intend to try him again on attempted murder charges.
"We'll be in court tomorrow to pick another date," a spokesman for the
Brooklyn district attorney's office, Jerry Schmetterer, said on
Tuesday morning. Or, as they say in Fula, "hunde kala e saa'i mun" —
everything in its own time.

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