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January 7, 2004

Language issues snarl ex-Austine staffer's trial

From: Brattleboro Reformer, VT - Jan 7, 2004

(Please see this article: Austine counselor's conviction reversed)

BRATTLEBORO (AP) -- What do you do when the accused, the alleged victim and many witnesses in a criminal trial are all hearing impaired?

That's the case in the sexual assault trial of a former staff member at the Austine School of the Deaf.

Four sign language interpreters, two for the court and one each for the defense and prosecution, are being used to interpret the sign language used by some with the verbal communication used by the attorneys and the jury.

"I don't really live in (the victim's) world, and she doesn't really live in mine ... we do not share a language," Windham County Deputy State's Attorney John Lavoie said in his opening statement Tuesday. "It really is mind-boggling, this whole procedure of communications and linguistics."

John Rehkop, 33, a former behavioral specialist assisting in discipline at the school, is facing three counts of sexual assault on a minor. A student accused him of forcing her to perform oral sex on him five years ago.

The added layer of communication could make it more difficult for the jury to assess the reliability of the witnesses. This is a key element of the 5-year-old case, which largely comes down to the word of the victim against that of Rehkop, who was a behavioral specialist assisting with student discipline at Austine School at the time.

"The evidence in this case, the best we can do is one step removed -- filtered through one interpreter, maybe two," Lavoie said. "But if you believe what (the victim) has to say about what the defendant did to her, you will convict ... and you will believe her when you have the chance to meet her."

Joanne Baltz, a public defender representing Rehkop, also warned the jury that elements of the trial would be somewhat unusual.

"It will be a little difficult, a little different from what you've experienced so far," Baltz said. "But wait until you hear it all, the closing statements and the judge's instructions, before you even begin to consider."

After the opening statements, the victim took the stand to describe through interpreters the four occasions when she says Rehkop made her perform oral sex on him in Austine School bathrooms and offices. But even that process ran into translation difficulties.

One sign language translator observing the trial said there is no such thing as a verbatim translation from ASL to English. Lavoie said he knows very little American Sign Language. He also lamented the lack of nuances and detail in the translations provided to the jury, noting that sign language had as much variation and shades of meaning as English.

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