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September 29, 2005

Deaf mute with few language skills found incompetent to face murder charge

From: Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, FL - Sep 29, 2005

Sue Lindsey
Associated Press
Posted September 29 2005, 7:45 PM EDT

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (AP) -- A deaf, mute, illiterate Salvadoran on Thursday was found incompetent to stand trial on a capital murder charge in the slaying of a teenage girl.

James City County Circuit Court Judge Samuel Powell ordered that Oswaldo Martinez be sent to a state mental hospital for language training after expert witnesses for the prosecution and defense testified that he has practically no communication skills.

Martinez now is being held at Central State Hospital near Petersburg, and Powell said he could not legally specify where the 33-year-old defendant will be sent.

However, defense attorneys said they will ask that he go to Western State Hospital in Staunton, where he could receive training in sign language.

Martinez, an illegal immigrant, was indicted in May on charges of raping and killing Brittany Binger, who was 16.

Psychologist Carolyn Corbett was part of a team from Gallaudet University that spent six hours with Martinez to evaluate him for the defense. Gallaudet is a Washington, D.C., school for the hearing-impaired, and Corbett said Martinez spoke only four words and used gestures that sometimes were difficult to understand.

He could not read, she said, and while he could print his first name slowly, he could not recognize his last name.

Commonwealth's Attorney Mike McGinty noted that Martinez has received a hearing aid since he was evaluated by the Gallaudet team, and asked Corbett whether she would be surprised that he now can say certain words in Spanish and can count to 30.

"That is still a very low level of language skill,'' she said, adding that by age 3 or 4 children begin to talk in sentences.

Corbett said Martinez is not ready for trial because he cannot communicate with his attorneys and doesn't even fully understand why he's in court. He should be able to understand what witnesses are saying about him, she said.

"Like me right now,'' she said. ''He doesn't understand what I'm saying. He's not even looking at me.''

Martinez, wearing a navy blue T-shirt over a gray sweatshirt, looked down at the defense table for most of the proceeding.

The witnesses testified that if Martinez can learn to communicate, it's more likely he'll be able to do so through sign language than speech. He receives speech therapy where he is hospitalized now.

Dr. Barbara Haskins, a psychiatrist who works with deaf patients at Western State Hospital, said Martinez should be immersed in the hospital's program so he would have to use sign language to communicate.

But Haskins, a witness for the prosecution, said before he goes to trial she would want him to understand more about court procedures.

He has been to trial for hearings and gone back to the hospital. She said she would want him to understand that after a trial he could go to prison and possibly be put to death.

Martinez was arrested in February after police learned that DNA from the semen on Binger's body matched DNA swabbed from Martinez's cheek. Authorities believe the attack happened Jan. 2.

Martinez's DNA was found under the teenager's fingernails, apparently from fending off an attack, police have said.

James City County Police Maj. Stan Stout said evidence shows Brittany was grabbed from behind, and the assailant covered her mouth with one hand while cutting off her air supply with the other. The assailant then sexually assaulted her and walked off with some of her valuables, Stout said.

Under state law, capital murder defendants who are judged incompetent to stand trial remain institutionalized undergoing treatment for their condition. If it appears competency can't be restored soon, hearings continue every six months to assess the defendant's competency level and whether the treatment they're receiving is adequate.

Powell ordered a hearing to review Martinez's status April 5.

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