New Mexico’s Supreme Court: Murder Conviction Stands Despite Non-English Speaking Juror’s Excusal

15 Aug

New Mexico’s Supreme Court rules that jurors that do not speak English have the right to serve on a jury, as set forth in the state’s constitution. The case before the high court that raised the question centered on the first degree murder conviction of a man who bludgeoned his girlfriend to death in 2004. Michael Anthony Samora was also convicted of a subsequent armed robbery and stabbing.

His appeal argued that his convictions should be reversed because a prospective Spanish-speaking juror with limited English comprehension was excused. The juror indicated on a questionnaire that he did not speak English well enough to write in it. The judge then told the prospective juror that he would be provided with an interpreter, who mistakenly ended up in the wrong courtroom. The judge later excused the juror in question, after he told the judge he had trouble following voir dire proceedings.

Article VII, Section 3 of the New Mexico Constitution guarantees

“The right of any citizen of the state to vote, hold office or sit upon juries, shall never be restricted, abridged or impaired on account of religion, race, language or color, or inability to speak, read or write the English or Spanish languages except as may be otherwise provided in this constitution;”

The high court stated that the district court had in fact failed to provide an interpreter for the juror, but upheld the convictions.

“…Defendant’s trial took place in the Second Judicial District Court, the most populous district in our state, where a Spanish interpreter should have been readily available. At a minimum, voir dire should have been continued until the misdirected interpreter was brought to the correct court or a replacement interpreter secured.”

The court held that “the unpreserved error was not the kind of fundamental error that requires reversal of a conviction without a party’s raising the issue in the trial court.”

State of New Mexico v. Michael Anthony Samora (.pdf)

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