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Join Date: Apr 2004
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Court win fuels Snoqualmie man's fight for deaf rights
Court win fuels Snoqualmie man's fight for deaf rights - Snoqualmie Valley Record
Court appearances are inherently scary, and not just because of the legal or financial outcomes. The language of law is obscure, and, for the average person, difficult to follow. For a profoundly deaf person like W. Michael Kral of Snoqualmie, without an interpreter, the language might as well be ancient Greek.
Kral, 33, was arrested in 2005 on suspicion of driving under the influence and driving with a suspended license, and served nine months in jail, he says because he didn't understand the proceedings at the Benton County Court in which he was tried.
"It was really frustrating," he said through an interpreter. "Sometimes I didnít even know that I was misunderstanding something."
His present attorney, M. Moe Spencer, who recently helped Kral win his appeal to reverse the 2006 conviction, said the court was required by state law to have a court-certified sign-language interpreter present at Kral's trial. Kral specifically requested one, as well, to help him understand the legal process.
Attorneys, Kral said, "they donít really talk to you, they talk at you."
He didn't get a court-certified interpreter, although Spencer's appeal brief stated there were three qualified people in the area during Kral's trial. Instead the interpreter named in the brief, Sal Contreras, "was actually a Spanish interpreter who knew a little sign language," Spencer said. "He certainly wasn't qualified to do sign language."
Kral has relied on American Sign Language to communicate nearly all his life, having lost his hearing at 9 months, when he developed spinal meningitis. Benton County's failure to accommodate Kral's needs in court was the foundation for his successful appeal, said Michael's wife, Amanda.
"The interpreter in the courtroom at the time told Michael that he was signing a continuanceÖ thatís how he won it," she explained.
Kral was arrested Dec. 29, 2005, while he was living and working in Kennewick, and given a court-appointed attorney, Chris Herion, the next day. Contreras was not made available to him until after his Jan. 18 court appearance. Kral signed a waiver of his right to a speedy trial (within 90 days of his arrest), saying that Contreras had described it as continuance, or delay of the trial.
"I really thought I was signing a continuance," he said.
Kral was also communicating by hand-written notes to and from his attorney, but said he couldn't understand most of them, either. When he protested that he didn't understand, he said "Well I didnít really get any response."
In his appeal, Spencer cited studies indicating that Kral, because he was "prelingually deaf," had less reading comprehension than a hearing person, or even a person who lost hearing after learning to speak. Kral estimates his own reading ability to be "probably at the elementary level."
Kral remained in jail while his case dragged on. He didn't know until April 27, when he requested the case be dismissed for violating his right to a speedy trial, that he'd signed a waiver of those rights. However, his case went immediately to a bench trial, where the judge found him guilty and sentenced him to nine months in jail, and three months in an alcohol treatment program.
Spencer, who frequently represents DUI cases, said the charges can be difficult to prove, and the burden is on the state. He feels that Kral might have been exonerated by a jury.
However, Kral admitted to having been arrested on DUI charges in the past, and couldn't remember why his license was suspended at the time of his Kennewick arrest. Court records show that he has a May 24, 2005, arrest in Pierce County and an Aug. 4, 2005, arrest in King County.
His experience in Benton County Court has had two important outcomes, his appeal in defense of the rights of deaf people, and a change in his own behavior.
"Iíve been sober (for) the last six years," he said.
He's also been appealing his conviction for most of that time, mainly due to a series of attorney errors or conflicts that continued until last spring, when Spencer was asked to take on Kral's appeal, for which the family is grateful. Kral's appeal is on the grounds that the court violated his constitutional rights, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and its predecessor, the Rehabilitation Act. He didn't really know what his rights were at the time of his trial, he said.
"I basically understood that I had the right to an interpreter," he said, "and while all the court proceedings were going on, and while I was in jail, I found out more specifics, more about deaf rights."
His family, likewise, learned more about Contreras.
"Once Michael, in open court said 'Hey, I didnít understand this,' luckily his mom was in court," Amanda said. A search with a national registry of sign-language interpreters revealed that Contreras had no court-certified credentials, and by April, he was replaced on the case with Shelly Jensen.
ďSheís an awesome interpreter," Kral said, adding "Itís a good thing now that the court is aware that there are qualifications for an interpreter.Ē
Today, Kral is celebrating the successful appeal of his conviction, and Judge Daniel Kathen's ruling that he should be reimbursed the $4,600 in fines and fees he paid for that conviction, but he's also focusing on other deaf-rights fights.
"I have a suit in process right now, itís currently pending, in the 9th Circuit District Court of Appeals," he said, relating to his treatment in the Benton County Jail. Although he was entitled to an interpreter when he met with his attorney, none was provided, nor did the jail allow him a closed-captioning phone service that would have allowed him to communicate with people outside the jail.
He also has filed a suit against King County, which he couldn't discuss, except to say "It is related to deaf rights, yes. There needs to be more awarenessÖ deaf people, especially need to be aware of their rights."
"Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light."
- Helen Keller