Ask Alberto Gonzales: What About Petrona Tomas?

The case of a young woman wrongly accused of murdering her newborn child could have been avoided if laws allowing her an interpreter in her native indigenous Mayan dialect would have been honored. Hilary Abramson, a contributing editor for New America Media, researched language access on a grant from The Fund for Investigative Journalism.

By New America Media, News Feature, Hilary Abramson

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Somebody should ask Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (or whoever takes his job) about Petrona Tomas.

At age 11, the little girl was sold by her father to a man in their native Guatemala. Fearing for her life, three years later she was smuggled out to live with her brother in Lake Worth, Florida, where she was sold out by law enforcement authorities.

Speaking English and Spanish – both incomprehensible to Petrona Tomas -- officers allowed her father to waive her Miranda rights. She was charged as an adult with the first-degree murder of the 2.8-pound premature infant she delivered on the bathroom floor. And they imprisoned her for one-and-a-half years in a jail for adults while she awaited trial.

The only facts that were clear from the start in 2002, until the case was well underway was that Petrona Tomas received neither medical nor legal communication in a language she spoke or understood. And that federal law defines this as discrimination and that the U.S. Department of Justice is supposed to oversee and enforce that law—Title VI of The Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The teenager, who was illiterate and understood little more than a Mayan dialect, was headed for possible life in prison. A month after Petrona’s arrest, a group of women from her remote mountain village wrote a letter to the U.S. government pleading for justice for the child. They had it translated into English and delivered to an American lawyer vacationing in the area. Once home, the tourist passed it to Isabel Framer, a recognized consultant on court interpreting. The following month, Framer filed a discrimination complaint with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice against the Lake Worth police and sheriff’s departments and the Palm Beach [County] Circuit Court.

Ask the attorney general of the United States why it took three years to forge an agreement with Lake Worth police to develop a language plan that should have already been in place. A small city in Palm Beach County, Lake Worth has a large Latino population and enough Mayan languages to be considered a Mayan village. Guaranteeing accurate communication for a population of significant size in a community is the heart of Title VI.

Ask Gonzales why the agreement last month was signed three days before Wan J. Kim, assistant attorney general of his Civil Rights Division, addressed the division’s first national conference on language access. Kim called the agreement an example of “doing the right thing.”

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Ask the attorney general why the investigation is described as “ongoing” by his department spokesmen.

Presumably, this is because agreements with the sheriff’s department and court have yet to be reached. In the view of Bruce Adelson, a civil rights attorney who left Justice last year, the Petrona Tomas case was “so egregious,” it should have been taken care of “quickly and firmly, to send a message to law enforcement everywhere.”

The lesson came too late for Lake Worth police, who evicted eight Guatemalan families from their building one night last year, allegedly using a ruse of code violations and giving them 30 minutes to clear out. The Florida Equal Justice Project has filed a discrimination lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Florida against the city of Lake Worth, claiming selective code enforcement under the Fair Housing Act. A trial is set for next August.

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