The New Mexico Supreme Court has determined that non-English speaking residents of the heavily Hispanic state have the right to serve on juries, even if it is difficult for them to comprehend much of the court proceedings.
The court ruled unanimously Monday to uphold the conviction of Michael Anthony Samora, an Alberquerque man who appealed his conviction for the 2004 murder of his girlfriend and other crimes, including armed robbery and a stabbing. Samora argued that his verdict should be re-considered because a Bernalillo County judge excused a Spanish-speaking juror who could not understand English.
The Supreme Court agreed with the appeal but upheld Samora’s conviction, saying his attorney should have objected to the excusal during the initial trial, according to the Associated Press.
Monday’s ruling said by dismissing the Spanish-speaking juror Samora's trial judge violated a state constitutional provision saying a citizen’s right to vote, hold public office, and serve on a jury may not be restricted “on account of religion, race, language or color, or inability to speak, read or write the English or Spanish languages…”
The decision went on to advise New Mexico trial judges and lawyers that they “have a shared responsibility to make every reasonable effort to protect the right of our non-English speaking citizens to serve on New Mexico juries.”
The Bernalillo County judge told the prospective juror that a translator would be provided if he was chosen to oversee the trial. Still, the man was dismissed after acknowledging he was unable to understand much of what was being discussed.
Previous rulings granted judges the power to delay the start of trial if a translator can be found within a reasonable amount of time.
University of Houston law professor Michal Olivas told the AP that New Mexico courts are required to provide translators for non-English speakers. He said translators are usually on hand for jurors who only speak Native American Indian languages.
Demographically, New Mexico is the most Hispanic of the United States. Nearly half of the population is Latino with Governor Susana Martinez, the first Latina governor elected in America, regularly addressing citizens in Spanish.