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April 18, 2004

A World Without Words, and Without Hope

From: Los Angeles Times, CA - Apr 18, 2004

Could a deaf, mute migrant understand the charge that she tried to kill her baby?

By Juliana Barbassa
Associated Press

April 18, 2004

MERCED, Calif. — Juliana Martinez Dionicio has no language.

She is deaf and mute. Her family speaks only Trique, an obscure Indian language that is foreign even to other Mexicans. She communicates with her family in gestures no one else understands.

Illiterate and silent, Juliana lives in isolation made even more profound by her circumstances — traveling with her sister and father in an anonymous stream of undocumented immigrant farmworkers who tend fields across the West.

On a cold day last November, the tiny 24-year-old climbed a rusty chain-link fence into a neighbor's filthy dog pen in Livingston, Calif. Alone, she gave birth to a baby girl.

Then she stuffed several wads of tissue in the infant's mouth.

California authorities arrested her on a charge of felony child endangerment.

"I would look at her sitting there in court and wonder what was going through her mind," said prosecutor Larry Morse II. "We can only suppose as to know she understands."

Imagine living in a world without words. Then imagine getting pregnant, perhaps as a result of rape, giving birth alone, being arrested — and not having the words to explain, or to understand what is happening.

That is Juliana's story.

Juliana was born in extreme poverty in San Martin Itunyoso, a remote village in the highlands of Oaxaca, Mexico. Her father worked the fields; her mother took care of the five children.

The family scraped by until they borrowed money to build a home. Unable to repay the debt, Pedro Martinez crossed the border illegally two years ago with Rosa and Juliana, his two oldest daughters.

Since then, Juliana has lived in crowded migrant camps, planting, weeding and harvesting fields from Southern California to Oregon.

It is a meager life. Pedro Martinez sent any savings back to the family in Oaxaca. There was no time or money for the young women's wants — new clothes, shoes — or for the most basic needs, such as education and medical care, her father said through an interpreter.

Juliana had never been to a doctor, seen a social worker or attended school. A silent pair of hands in a field, she escaped notice until the chilly morning when she left the crowded house she shared with other migrant workers and scaled that fence.

Maria Silveira was watching TV when she heard her dog barking insistently. Frightened, the elderly woman rushed across the street to Livingston's tiny police department.

Officer Alan Cadiente and Lilly Trujillo, a volunteer Spanish-language translator, ran to Silveira's backyard. Inside the splintering old boards of its pen, the dog pulled against its leash, growling and barking.

There, they found Juliana squatting in fresh blood mixed with leaves and dog excrement. She was cold and in shock. She would not look up, make eye contact or react to their presence.

"She didn't know who to trust," Cadiente said.

The baby, her black hair matted with blood, was propped like a doll against a tree trunk. Her lips were blue. She was cold to the touch. The umbilical cord was still attached.

Silveira brought a towel — one of her new ones. Trujillo wrapped up the baby, then noticed something white sticking out of her mouth. She pulled out a wad of tissue, then another. Paramedics rushing the child to the hospital found two more lodged in the baby's throat.

Though Juliana can't speak, she can communicate with those around her. Testing indicates she functions at an 11-year-old level — smart enough to teach courthouse staff that when she touches her cheek and smiles, it means she wants candy.

Morse always tried to hand her some.

"She has very lively, intelligent eyes," he said. "She seems to be taking all of it in, but you can't know what she's really processing."

But for the legal case to go forward, lawyers had to be certain she could understand the charge against her and help with her defense.

"I think she understands this is in regards to her baby," Public Defender Jeffrey Tenenbaum said, mimicking one of Juliana's gestures by rocking his hands back and forth as if cradling a child. "I can't be sure."

As attorneys argued about her future, Juliana sat on a hard wooden bench, her feet barely reaching the floor. Her long black hair, held back by a plastic clip, draped down her back, and her slight frame disappeared under folds of a gray prison-issue sweatshirt. She followed the action with her eyes, but sometimes seemed far away, like a well-brought-up child watching adults discuss something she knows is important, but can't understand.

Pressured to tell her story to a roomful of strangers, Juliana gestured with her hands and her body. Her sister, Rosa, then explained, in Trique, what Juliana was trying to say. Translator Carlos Martinez, who speaks Trique and Spanish, passed Rosa's words along to a court interpreter, who then translated them into English.

Two court-appointed sign-language experts, one of them mute like Juliana, also tried to interpret her meaning.

As best they could tell through this cumbersome chain, Juliana said she had been raped in a migrant camp. She stuffed the tissue into the baby's mouth because she saw blood, thought the child was bleeding, and thought the tissue would staunch it.

And, she seemed to be saying, she wanted to keep her baby.

The gestures may be a glimpse into her frame of mind, attorneys said, but are useless legally. "It's anybody's guess what we're really being told," Morse said.

To convict Juliana, prosecutors had to prove she intended to do harm — or at least had reason to believe her actions could cause harm.

Had she really stuffed tissue in her newborn's mouth to clean away blood? Or was it to muffle her cries? Or to kill her?

"You have to get into the head of the defendant," said Joshua Dressler, a criminal law expert at Ohio State University. "Was she trying to harm this child?"

How could the court determine what Dressler called "moral blame"?

Attorneys in the case say they've never faced such a legal impasse. The law has provisions for dealing with minors, with the mentally incompetent, with those who speak a different language.

But there is no established procedure for dealing with an adult who has no language.

Doctors who examined Juliana's child after birth said the little girl had suffered from the cold and from being born outside without medical care. She showed some irritation and blood around the esophagus.

But her heartbeat and temperature returned to normal soon after she was warmed.

After a short hospital stay, the baby went to Child Protective Services. She's healthy now, and she can hear and cry like other infants.

Social workers named her Hope.

Meanwhile, Juliana, released to her family's custody, returned to court week after week for half a dozen failed attempts at arraignment.

Tenenbaum, the public defender, invited an ear, nose and throat doctor to examine the evidence. The specialist found he could not conclude from his examination that Juliana had tried to kill the child — and would say so in court.

With little chance of ever learning the truth, the state finally dropped the charge.

When Juliana faced a felony charge, the state had a compelling interest in teaching her sign language to break her isolation. The possibility briefly raised the hopes of her father, burdened by his failures as a provider.

"I heard about a specialist once, in Mexico," the stocky farmworker said quietly, his head buried deep inside his straw hat. "But we had no money, and it was very far away."

Now that the charge has been dropped, that help is not coming.

Juliana has been able to see Hope just twice. The last time, one of the court translators said, she held her baby close for two hours, hugging her and smiling.

Her father has told the interpreter that he and Juliana would like to raise the baby.

The court could ask Juliana to take parenting classes and eventually prove that she can be a competent mother. Her father could try to prove he can provide the stable family life usually required in custody cases.

That probably won't happen, lawyers said, and Juliana probably won't get her baby back.

The family cannot afford to stay in Central California and fight for the child — a fight that would cost money they do not have. They are farmworkers, and their next stop is Washington state.

"They came to work; they have to work," said Martinez, the Trique translator. "They've found nothing but sadness here."

Come May, they will travel to meet the harvest. Later, they will return to Oaxaca, leaving their Hope behind.

Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times