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October 6, 2005

Beaver court goes high-tech to try deaf man

From: Pittsburgh Post Gazette, PA - Oct 6, 2005

'We should do this the right way,' administrator says

By Gabrielle Banks, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Beaver County court officials have rearranged the furniture and done a half-dozen practice runs with the high-tech contraptions they plan to use in a competency hearing today for a Freedom man charged with killing his sister and brother-in-law at his parents' home in May.

Defendant Thomas Simich Jr. is deaf. And the federal Americans with Disabilities Act guarantees him due process at every phase of a criminal procedure, including arrest and pre-trial incarceration. It is the court's duty to make sure he understands what is going on at all times.

According to a 2001 study published in American Annals of the Deaf, a Gallaudet University Press journal, dozens of criminal defendants have been denied these rights in the decade since the act was passed.

"We know we're under the microscope and we should be. We should do this the right way," said Aileen Bowers, a deputy court administrator who researched how to set up Judge John D. McBride's courtroom in Beaver County Court of Common Pleas.

Ms. Bowers, who is an attorney, has arranged for the court reporter's official notes to be projected simultaneously on two TV screens, one at the defense table and one in the gallery.

The court reporter will type the way she typically does on a stenography machine, but it will be hooked up to a laptop computer with software that instantly translates her shorthand into written English. The information on the laptop will be projected onto the two screens and may have the sort of phonetic typos that show up in closed captioning on TV -- such as "here" instead of "hear."

Two certified American Sign Language interpreters will be on hand to interpret all communications between the defendant and his attorney, public defender Frank Martucci, and another two will take turns interpreting the official proceedings from the front of the room.

Court officials have erected a 4-foot-high wall around the defense table to prevent anyone in the gallery who knows sign language from eavesdropping on Mr. Simich's conversations with Mr. Martucci.

The Simich case is especially unusual in that the victims, a married couple from Palm Bay, Fla., were deaf and the witnesses, parents Thomas Simich Sr. and Dorothy Simich, are hearing impaired and deaf. The victims' four children, who live in Florida, are also deaf. It took the Rochester Borough police chief hours to communicate to them that their parents had been killed.

Mr. Simich, 45, is accused of firing one rifle slug from close range at his sister, Marilyn Bergman, 43, and one at her husband, Steven Bergman, 46, on the afternoon of May 2, after Ms. Bergman told her brother she wanted to sell their parents' home, where Mr. Simich also resided.

Witnesses at today's hearing, including Dr. Christine Martone, the forensic psychiatrist that First Assistant District Attorney Anthony Berosh and the defense counsel have agreed to use as their expert, will testify about whether Mr. Simich is mentally competent to stand trial on the homicide charges. Relatives have said he was prescribed psychotropic medication prior to the incident, but had stopped taking it.

If Mr. Simich's elderly parents are called to the witness stand, the court is prepared to provide interpreters familiar with the colloquial hand signs they use.

Dozens of police departments and courthouses across the country have discovered they are ill-prepared to handle deaf citizens at the moment a case like Mr. Simich's presents itself.

New York police recently used the child of a deaf neighbor to interpret during an interrogation of a suspect. Officers in Tampa, Fla., confiscated a man's blood-spattered hearing aid as evidence and Detroit officers mistakenly shot a man because he could not hear orders to drop a garden rake. In another Detroit case, police thought a victim was throwing gang signs when he tried to speak to them.

On the day the Bergmans were killed, Rochester police initially thought they were dealing with a hostage situation because Mr. Simich did not respond to messages transmitted on his TTY machine.

"We used our basic 'get down on the ground with your hands up' signals,' " said Chief Joe DeLuca. Mr. Simich also read the officers' lips, Chief DeLuca later determined. During the interrogation, the chief got help from a family friend of the Simiches who was a certified interpreter.

Two of the officers who responded to the double homicide scene in May, a third Rochester officer and Rochester Borough Councilman Garry L. Miller voluntarily enrolled in an eight-week American Sign Language course that began yesterday at Beaver County Rehabilitation Center in Brighton Heights, Chief DeLuca said.

That means three of the borough police's 10 full-time officers will potentially know some sign language.

"Even if a person is lost and they need directions, there's a good chance one of these guys will be on duty," he said.

(Gabrielle Banks can be reached at or 412-263-1370.)

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