Does Speaking Zero Languages Make You the Perfect Criminal?

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Juan Jose Gonzalez Luna cannot speak, write, or understand any languages. He is deaf, mute, illiterate, never learned a formal sign language, and can communicate only through improvised pantomime. He is also, as it happens, an alleged drug mule currently on trial in Pennsylvania on drug trafficking charges. But, as The Philadelphia Inquirer's Jeremy Roebuck explains, Luna's total language deficiency makes prosecuting him incredibly difficult.

Accommodating those with limited access to language is a rare problem in U.S. courts, but one that judges have met with limited success. Many have avoided the problem, declaring such defendants incompetent to stand trial. Others have relied on a complex and imperfect method of interpretation, one still viewed with skepticism by many in the legal profession.

And while most courts say they do their best, a good effort is not good enough, said Michele LaVigne, a lawyer and scholar at the University of Wisconsin Law School. It is not, after all, that defendants like Gonzalez are incompetent to stand trial, but that the U.S. court system largely remains ill-suited for trying them. "The law is a language-based system," she said. "Drop someone in who can't access that immediately, and we still don't know what to do with them."

In other words, while Luna's disabilities probably do not make him an especially effective criminal, they do wonders for his ability to resist prosecution. The U.S. legal system simply can't yet deal with it.

University of Pennsylvania language professor Mark Liberman points to a recent paper on the legal system's challenge at handling suspects with no language. The paper, by the University of Pennyslvania Law Review's Brandon Tuck, "Preserving Facts, Form, and Function when a Deaf Witness with Minimal Language Skills Testifies in Court," includes this disturbing detail:

The case of Donald Lang, a deaf man accused of two murders in Chicago, is a well-publicized example of courts wrestling with this issue. Lang came from a poor black neighborhood in Chicago, never attended school, and never learned even a first language. Despite having what could have been the best attorney-defendant fit in lawyer Lowell Myers, who was himself deaf, Lang's situation confounded the Illinois system. In no fewer than nine reported decisions, the courts wrestled with how to accommodate Lang. The crux of the issue was whether Lang was unfit to stand trial because he was linguistically incompetent and therefore unable to assist in his own defense. As a result, Lang fought for years against indefinite confinement in a mental institution despite his lack of any mental illness.

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