Iowa Supreme Court to hear arguments on the right to a jury and to a language interpreter in Davenport today

By: Rox Laird on October 12th, 2017

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear arguments in a drug-conviction appeal at the Davenport Central High School Performing Arts Center this evening. This will be the court’s third session outside the Judicial Branch Building this term, which is part of the court’s continuing effort to make the appellate process more accessible to the public.

The justices will hear arguments in one case: State of Iowa v Carlos Ariel Gomez Garcia. The appellant appealed his conviction in Scott County District Court for delivery of cocaine and 10-year prison sentence on grounds that his trial counsel was ineffective, that he did not “knowingly or intelligently” waive his right to be tried before a jury, and that he should have been able to waive his right to have an English-language translator present at trial.

A criminal defendant may waive the constitutional right to a jury trial, but that option must be exercised according to court rules and after the trial judge has been assured the waiver is made voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently. Garcia argues those rules were not followed in his case.

The State, in a brief submitted to the court by Attorney General Tom Miller, concedes that the jury right was not properly waived, but that did not prejudice Garcia’s case. In order to establish prejudice, the defendant must prove by a preponderance of evidence that he would not have waived the right to trial had his counsel assured compliance with the waiver rules. The Supreme Court cannot determine that based on the trial record, the State argues.

Garcia says his decision to proceed to trial without a jury was made after the trial judge denied his request to waive the use of interpreters. Garcia said he is fluent in English, and an interpreter would be confusing to him and visible to a jury, possibly resulting in prejudice to his case.

“Defendant’s language skills were clearly sufficient to understand and participate in the trial proceedings,” Garcia’s appellant lawyer argued in a brief filed with the Supreme Court, but the trial judge “essentially forced an interpreter on defendant irrespective of whether he desired or needed one.”

In response, the State says Garcia’s argument that the presence of an interpreter “would have compromised a jury’s ability to weigh evidence fairly” is irrelevant because his case was tried before the judge. “There is no indication that the fairness of this bench trial was compromised or that its outcome was influenced by the court’s ruling on this issue or by the presence of standby interpreters,” the State argues.

Thursday’s oral argument is open to the public and will begin at 7 p.m. For more information and a link to the briefs in the case, go to the Judicial Branch website.

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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