Should the Deaf Get Death?


The defense motion to bar the death penalty in Wright's case cited a study by Barbara Brauer, executive director of Gallaudet University, the first school for the advanced education of the deaf. Brauer measured how long it takes to interpret into sign language what a person is saying in English; she found that a series of questions that could be administered in 42 minutes in spoken English would take two hours to administer in American sign language.

In their motion to strike the death penalty defense attorneys for Wright cited the lack of consecutive interpretation. In other words, the sign language interpreter assigned to her case would be translating simultaneously during the court proceedings, rather than listening to a portion of testimony and translating during a pause in the process.

This, attorneys argue, leaves little time to compensate for the fact that it takes longer to say something in sign language than in spoken English -- particularly when the complex legal concepts are part of the conversation.

Her attorneys also state in their motion that American Sign Language "lacks technical and legal terms" that would be crucial to Daphne Wright as tries to understand the court proceedings around her.

Judge Bradley Zell has allowed court proceedings to be videotaped so that Daphne Wright and her lawyers can have a record of the sign language communications used in the courtroom. Her lawyers maintain that they are not allowed to use a Certified Deaf Interpreter for the trial.

Professor Jeff Braden, an expert in deafness and development, says that Wright should not face the death penalty, even if an ideal interpreter were available. "She is at more of a disadvantage than, say, if you or I were arrested and taken to court in Pakistan, where we'd be at the mercy of a court interpreter. Having an interpreter still doesn't change the fact that deaf people don't have a native language."

The problem, Braden says, is that it is not uncommon for a woman like Wright -- deaf since early childhood and born to hearing parents -- to get a late start in her exposure to language. In those critical early years, Braden says, critical communication skills are lost.

"There are a number of barriers that deaf people face that would put them at a severe disadvantage in a legal proceeding. … She'd be at a significant disadvantage, even with an interpreter." Braden told ABC News.

"Battery or manslaughter may be signed the same way. An individual is not getting info they need because American Sign Language doesn't [those symbols]," Braden added. He also notes that tone of voice and other nuances that convey meaning in the courtroom would get lost in interpretation.

Rick Norris of Communication Service for the Deaf told ABC News he believes otherwise. He says the only time interpretation could present a problem is at times of long duration, when it might become taxing on the interpreter.

Other researchers agree, stating that as long as qualified interpreters are provided, deaf defendants should have no inherent problem understanding the complexity of the legal process or the moral weight of their alleged crimes.

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