People v. Thomas Lee


AD1 order dated November 29, 2011, affirming judgment of conviction. Decision below: 89 A.D.3d 633, 933 N.Y.S.2d 272. Lippman, Ch.J., granted leave July 2, 2012.

ISSUES PRESENTED: (1) The propriety of one of the victims testifying through a Cantonese official court interpreter who knew the victims, where the trial judge did not inquire into the availability of anther interpreter. (2) Sandoval. (Assigned counsel: Richard M. Greenberg, Office of the Appellate Defender, 11 Park Place, Suite 1601, NYC 10007.)

Issue before the Court: Whether the trial court erred in refusing to replace a court interpreter who was acquainted with the complainant wife for whom he was tasked with translating; had business meetings with the complainant husband; and knew the complainant husband’s criminal background, but where he stated upon questioning that he didn’t know the facts of the case and wasn’t uncomfortable translating.

Held: The court did not abuse its discretion in declining to replace the interpreter where he was sworn to uphold his duties and answered that he could do so upon court and attorney questioning.

CAL Observes: Interesting here is the strong dissent authored by Judge Rivera in which Judge Lippman joined. The dissenters’ concern focused on the consequences of the majority’s decision: an interpreter’s oath to faithfully discharge his or her duties is evidently enough to overcome any reasonable claim of bias, and by not providing for any mechanism to act as a check on a potentially biased translation, the trial court deprives the appellate court of a reliable record for appellate review. The dissent singled out for criticism the trial court’s apparent reliance on family and friends of the defendant to point out any problems with the translation, stating that it could not "seriously be considered a realistic and sound method to confirm the accuracy of the witness’s testimony as interpreted." In doing so, the dissenters show a readiness to set forth facts that the majority might just as soon see buried.