Spanish Interpreting Services in Jury Trials

Batson challenge sustained after attorney strikes Hispanic jurors without questioning

Legal interpreter services play an important role in jury trials. When services of Spanish court interpreters are required in jury trials, attorneys often exercise a peremptory challenge to remove a bilingual juror from the jury panel. A recent personal injury case from the Texas Court of Appeals demonstrates the importance of carefully questioning jurors when a Spanish court interpreter is used during trial. While it is constitutional to strike bilingual and non-English speaking jurors if they are unwilling to accept the official English transcript, an attorney needs to actually question the jurors about this instead of assuming it to be based on race.

In Murphy v. Mejia Arcos, 615 S.W.3d 676 (Dec. 2020) Murphy appeals with two issues, the relevant being that the court committed reversable error when it sustained Mejia’s Batson challenge to his peremptory strikes. On appeal, the Texas Court of Appeals found that the trial court inaccurately analyzed the Batson challenge, but that it was not an abuse of discretion. Even under the correct framework, Murphy engaged in purposeful discrimination when he struck the three Hispanic jurors.

The complicated facts of voir dire

Mejia sued Murphy after he was rear-ended in an accident. The case went to a jury and the court started the process of voir dire.

Before voir dire began, the court identified two Hispanic jurors that spoke English as a second language. The judge questioned both jurors further at the bench about their experience with the English language. This included questions about speaking and reading English at their jobs and taking classes in English. Mejia also asked questions, but Murphy did not ask any.

When it came time to exercise peremptory strikes, Murphy struck three jurors, each of whom was Hispanic. Mejia immediately objected under Batson and argued that Murphy struck the jurors because of their race, and it was unconstitutional.

Murphy responded that he did not strike the jurors because of their race. Instead, he struck one juror because she had been in a car accident and might be partial to Mejia. He said that he struck the other two jurors because he was worried that they would listen to any Spanish testimony and ignore the official English translation.

The trial court immediately sustained the Batson challenge for the two non-English speaking jurors, but denied it for the third juror that had been in an accident after moving to the third step in Batson.

The trial court incorrectly analyzed Batson when it skipped step 3

A Batson challenge has three steps. First the objecting party must make a prima facie case for racial discrimination. Next, the opposing party must provide a race-neutral explanation for the strike. Finally, the court must accept any race-neutral explanation and decide if the strike amounts to purposeful discrimination.

In this case, the trial court errored by sustaining the Batson challenge for two jurors before analyzing it under step three.

Bilingual jurors should accept an official translation of testimony during trial

The court noted that previous U.S. Supreme Court cases have ruled that striking jurors who will not accept an official English translation of testimony is a race-neutral reason to exercise a peremptory strike. This is true even though the strike may disproportionately affect Hispanic jurors.

However, an attorney must be careful to make the record clear that the reason for the strike is because of the inability to accept the translation, not because of race.

The Texas Court of Appeals continued to analyze the strikes under step three of Batson and found that despite his race-neutral reason, Murphy had still engaged in purposeful discrimination.

Murphy made several mistakes during voir dire

The Texas Court of Appeals pointed out that even though excluding jurors who will not accept an official Spanish to English interpretation of testimony is race-neutral, Murphy made several critical errors during voir dire that negate his argument.

First, Murphy created a statistical disparity between the Hispanic jurors and non-Hispanic jurors that he struck. Of the available Hispanic jurors, Murphy struck 42.9%. Of the available non-Hispanic jurors, Murphy only struck 12.5%.

But the court didn’t rely on this statistic alone and also criticized Murphy for his failure to properly question the jurors.

Murphy failed to question jurors about the interpreter issue

Despite claiming that he struck the jurors because they would not accept the Spanish to English interpretation of any Spanish testimony, Murphy didn’t actually ask any questions about this during voir dire. In fact, he didn’t ask any questions relevant to his reason for exercising the preemptive strike, at all.

The court noted that Murphy didn’t bring up to the venire that a Spanish interpreter was going to be used during trial, and that an official Spanish to English translation would be submitted to the jury. He didn’t ask any of the jurors about their comfort with Spanish interpreters or the Spanish or English languages. He also didn’t ask if anyone would have trouble accepting the official English translation or not.

Perhaps worse, Murphy didn’t ask the entire jury panel if they spoke Spanish or were bilingual. This was a critical error because if Murphy wanted to strike jurors for fear of not accepting the official Spanish to English interpretation, he needed to identify who spoke Spanish and who did not. Instead, Murphy assumed that only the Hispanic jurors spoke Spanish and were at risk of not accepting the official English interpretation.

If Murphy had properly questioned the jurors about using an interpreter and their English language abilities, then the court may have found that he didn’t engage in purposeful discrimination.

If you are using an interpreter during a jury trial, be prepared to ask the right questions

Any attorney using a Spanish interpreter during trial needs to question potential jurors about using the Spanish court interpreter. If an attorney fails to create a clear record during voir dire and exercises peremptory strikes based on stereotypes, they might have trouble on appeal.

Get in touch with All Language Alliance, Inc. to retain services of court-certified Spanish interpreters for video depositions via Zoom, and on-site Spanish deposition interpreters.

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