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Ramirez v. United States

June 16, 2005

EFRAIN RAMIREZ, APPELLANT,
v.
UNITED STATES, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia No. F-4290-99. Hon. Russell F. Canan, Trial Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Steadman, Senior Judge

Argued November 10, 2004

Before WAGNER, Chief Judge, REID, Associate Judge, and STEADMAN, Senior Judge.

Efrain Ramirez, a Spanish-speaking immigrant from El Salvador, was acquitted of a rape-related charge but convicted by a jury of assault with a dangerous weapon. At his trial, four errors in translation during his testimony were detected by the Spanish-speaking prosecutor and defense counsel and corrective action was taken. Although no further action was sought by Ramirez, he now claims on appeal that the trial court committed reversible error by failing sua sponte to conduct a voir dire into the interpreter's competence. Given the circumstances here, we disagree and affirm the conviction.

I.

Two conflicting stories were presented to the jury by the complainant, a George Washington University student, and Ramirez. According to the complainant, on February 8, 1999, she let Ramirez -- whom she recognized as a maintenance worker in her building -- into her apartment to perform maintenance work. After inspecting the pipes, Ramirez locked the complainant's front door and asked her to go on a date with him. When the complainant refused, Ramirez began punching and shoving her, forcing her to the ground, and eventually to her bed. At one point during the struggle, the complainant grabbed a knife, which Ramirez wrested from her, injuring them both. Ramirez then attempted to rape the complainant, but could not maintain an erection. After several unsuccessful attempts at penetration, Ramirez washed the blood off himself in the complainant's shower and took the bedding (which was stained with blood from the struggle) from the complainant's bed. Ramirez instructed the complainant not to tell anyone what had happened, gave her $50.00 and left the apartment. The complainant then sought help from her neighbors, who contacted emergency services.

In contrast, Ramirez testified in Spanish, through a court-appointed interpreter, that he had a prior sexual relationship with the complainant, and that he had given her $100.00 after each prior encounter. According to Ramirez, he went to the complainant's apartment on the day in question at her request, where they had consensual sex; however, he was only able to give her $50.00. The complainant was angered by the reduced payment and slapped Ramirez, who slapped her in return. This escalated to a violent exchange during which the complainant grabbed a kitchen knife, which Ramirez wrested from her, cutting them both. Both parties sustained injuries, and Ramirez left the apartment and cleaned up at home.

The jury acquitted Ramirez of the charge of assault with intent to commit first-degree sexual assault while armed, but convicted him on the lesser-included charge of assault with a dangerous weapon.*fn1

II.

Pursuant to the District of Columbia Interpreter Act, D.C. Code §§ 2-1901 et seq. (2001) (formerly §§ 31-2701 et seq.), a Spanish-speaking interpreter was provided for Ramirez at trial. During his direct examination, Ramirez's defense attorney, Ms. Pita-Loor, who was also Spanish-speaking,*fn2 questioned him about his first substantive conversation with the complainant as follows:

Q: Who was working with you?

A: Three people came to work in that apartment.

Q: Was Jose working ...


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