Lost in Translation: Gambian man benefits retrial in US


The Georgia Supreme Court unanimously ruled Monday that a Gambian man convicted of murder in Fulton County is entitled to a new trial because his uncertified interpreter provided him with an inaccurate translation of the proceedings against him, Daily Report online said.

Identified in the story as Mahamadou Tunkara, he was reported to have been convicted in November 2010 for the murder of Muhamed Turay and sentenced to life plus five years.

The medium reported the decision echoed a reminder last week by Chief Justice Hugh Thompson to lawmakers that state and federal law require that courts provide language services free of charge to litigants and witnesses in criminal and civil cases.

Noting that 700,000 people born outside the United States live in metropolitan Atlanta, Thompson said he envisioned “that every court, in every city and every county in Georgia, will have the capacity of serving all litigants, speaking any language, regardless of national origin, from the moment they enter the courthouse until the moment they leave.”

In the decision announced Monday, Justice Harold Melton wrote for the court, directing the Fulton County Superior Court to retry Mahamadou Tunkara, a native of the West African country of Gambia who speaks Soninke.

But the trial judge, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Craig Schwall, granted Tunkara’s motion for new trial on the grounds that his interpreter did not give him a clear picture of what was happening at his trial.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard appealed the ruling to the high court, along with Deputy District Attorney Paige Whitaker and Assistant District Attorney Sheila Gallow.

Howard was not immediately available for comment.

Tunkara was represented on appeal by Bruce Harvey of the Bruce Harvey Criminal Defense Law Firm.

Harvey said Schwall deserved credit for making a rare decision to grant a new trial in a case he had just heard.

“He did what a judge is supposed to do,” Harvey said. Schwall re-evaluated his denial during trial of the public defender’s motion for a mistrial because of the language problem.

“He said, “I was wrong. We’ll try the case again.'”

Harvey said the translator at the trial spoke the language but wasn’t qualified to be a court interpreter, “which is very difficult.”

Melton noted that the trial judge’s order for a new trial referred to “a complete breakdown” of Tunkara’s understanding of the proceedings due to misleading information from his interpreter, who was not officially certified.

The state argued that the trial court abused its discretion and challenged the ruling as not supported by statutes allowing for judges to grant new trials if the verdict goes against the evidence.

The high court agreed the judge used the wrong statutes to back up the new trial order but was correct nonetheless.

Melton wrote that the trial judge’s ruling for a new trial was premised on a special ground: the inadequacy of the interpreter.


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