What Does A Court Interpreter Do During A Criminal Trial?
If you’ve ever considered becoming a court interpreter you may imagine yourself in the heat of a trial interpreting for someone on the stand. While this is certainly one part of a trial where an interpreter is needed, a full criminal trial involves much more than hearing testimonies. The use of interpreters in criminal cases is necessary if, at any point in time, there is a Limited English Proficient (LEP) individual involved in the proceedings.
A relatively straightforward criminal trial typically consists of 6 phases:
- Choosing a jury
- Opening statements
- Witness testimony and cross-examinations
- Closing arguments
- Jury instruction
- Jury deliberation and verdict
A legal interpreter can be involved in all 6 of these phases depending on the language needs of those participating in the trial.
Not sure what exactly the role of a court interpreter would be for each stage?
Below we’ve outlined some common responsibilities a professional legal interpreter would have, depending on what part of the case they are involved in.
The Responsibilities of Legal Interpreters Throughout A Criminal Trial
Choosing a Jury
How is a jury chosen?
After the age of 18, U.S. citizens are eligible to be chosen at random to serve on a jury. Known as jury duty, lawyers and judges will interview all those called in for a particular trial and choose 6-12 individuals to serve on the panel.
What does a court interpreter do when choosing the jury?
An interpreter comes into play when individuals who do not speak English fluently are called for jury duty. An individual cannot be excused from a jury simply because they do not speak English. Therefore, during jury interviews with LEP individuals, interpreters are necessary to facilitate conversation.
What are the opening statements?
When the jury has been selected and the trial begins, both the prosecution and the defense have the option of giving opening statements. These are brief overviews of some of the information that the jury will be hearing throughout the trial, and are limited to only cover what will be proven with evidence later on.
In a criminal trial specifically, the body with the burden of proof – the one that has brought the case to the court, namely the government – gives the first opening statement. It is in this statement that it must be proved beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant has committed a crime.
What does a court interpreter do during the opening statements?
Court interpreters can be needed in a few instances during this part of the trial.
- If there is a jury made up of some LEP individuals an interpreter will need to be present to orally translate the opening statements for them.
- If the trial involves an LEP individual as a defendant an interpreter must be present to ensure that they understand what is going on.
- If there is an LEP witness involved in the trial who is present in the court room during the opening statements, an interpreter must be present to ensure that they understand what is being said.
Witness Testimony and Cross-Examination
What is direct examination?
It is during witness testimonies and cross-examinations where most aspiring legal interpreters picture themselves. During what is known as the direct examination the prosecution will call their witnesses to the stand to testify on a variety of grounds: as a witness to a crime, to provide an expert opinion if qualified to do so, or to identify evidence.
The defense calls their witnesses during what is known as a presentation of evidence by the defense, and it is similar to the prosecution’s direct examination.
What does a court interpreter do during the witness testimony?
A legal interpreter again would be required for a variety of reasons:
- To allow an LEP juror to understand the testimony and examination of a witness.
- To allow an LEP defendant to understand the testimony and examination of a witness.
- To allow an LEP witness to understand the lawyers’ questions, and to allow for the lawyers, judge, jury, and all else present to understand the witness’ answers.
What is the cross-examination?
After the prosecution has finished examining their witnesses, the defense also gets a turn to ask the witness questions (and vice versa during the presentation of evidence by the defense). This is known as a cross-examination. An interpreter would be required for the same reasons during a cross-examination, as they would during a direct examination.
What are the closing arguments?
Closing arguments will be given by both the prosecution and defense lawyers after all the evidence has been presented.
Similar to the opening statements the prosecution will give their closing arguments first. These arguments summarize the evidence presented, and provide logical conclusions drawn from that evidence against the defendant. A matter outside of the case or evidence that was not presented is not allowed to be discussed.
The defense will provide their closing arguments second, and usually rebuff points made by the prosecution in their closing arguments. They will emphasize any flaws in the prosecution’s case, and will highlight evidence that stands in favor of the defendant.
After the defense’s argument is given, the prosecution has the option to provide one further argument known as a rebuttal.
What does a court interpreter do during the closing arguments?
Interpreters are very important at this stage in the trial as it is the last argument either side will make before the jury deliberates on the verdict. Therefore it is imperative that all parties understand what is being said.
Court interpreters would be required to ensure:
- An LEP juror understands the closing arguments.
- An LEP defendant understands the closing arguments.
Instructions to the Jury
What are the instructions to the jury?
At the end of the trial, the judge will instruct the jury on the appropriate way to approach deliberations on the verdict. These instructions can include among other things:
- Laws that jurors need to consider when deciding the verdict.
- Definitions of terms presented with which jurors may not be familiar.
- The standard of proof applied to the case (that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt).
- A reminder to only consider evidence presented in the case.
- An overview about which facts are relevant to the case.
What does a court interpreter do when the judge is giving the instructions?
If an LEP individual is sitting on the jury it is vital that these instructions are interpreted into their native language. Otherwise, they will not be able to approach the deliberations competently or in line with the laws set forth by the judge.
Jury Deliberations and Verdict
What is the jury deliberation?
The outcome of a case is usually decided based on the deliberations and consensus of the jury (though there are opportunities throughout the trial where either the defense or the prosecution can motion for a directed verdict or a dismissal by the judge).
During deliberations the jurors will examine the evidence presented, and can ask for further information or clarification from the judge. For a verdict to be reached in a criminal case, the jury usually has to be unanimous. If they cannot all come to the same consensus, this results in a hung jury and a mistrial.
What does a court interpreter do during the jury deliberation?
Having an interpreter present during deliberations is necessary so LEP jurors can participate. In this situation adhering to the ethics of legal interpreting, specifically confidentiality and impartiality, as an interpreter is of the utmost importance.
Confidentially is required as deliberations cannot be discussed with anyone outside of the room. This applies the interpreter despite their not having a say in the deliberations or verdict.
However, one of the most challenging aspects of interpreting during jury deliberations is remaining impartial – especially if the LEP juror is not used to the United States legal system and considers their interpreter as a source for information or advice.
Under no circumstances should a court interpreter ever offer their opinion on a case during deliberations, and they must faithfully interpret all discussions as accurately as possible to ensure vital information is not left out.
The interpreter is responsible for ensuring the LEP juror can communicate and understand through the final delivery of the verdict.
Learning the Necessary Skills to Become a Court Interpreter
Now that you understand the role of a court interpreter in the various parts of a criminal case, you need to get some training. Becoming a court interpreter takes a lot of practice time dedicated to studying the legal system of the United States. Legal interpreters must be prepared to interpret with accuracy both legal terminology and the details of witness testimonies.
They also must be prepared to provide interpretation in a variety of legal settings such as the stages of a criminal trial listed above, or in other legal proceedings such as depositions.
Any mistakes on the part of the interpreters can result in serious consequences for those participating in the trial.
For those interested in gaining the necessary skills to become a legal interpreter, Language Connections offers a 7 week, Legal and Court Interpreter Training Program. In this course students will study the roles and skills of a legal interpreter, the interpreter code of ethics, and the Massachusetts legal system. All legal interpreter training classes are taught by professional legal interpreters.
In a criminal case, legal interpreters are necessary to ensure proper justice is served for LEP individuals, and to ensure that an LEP juror can make a competent and well thought out verdict. Don’t let language stand in the way of a fair trial – get the skills necessary to become a professional legal interpreter today!
Get the necessary, in person training in order to become a competent professional interpreter. Register now for one of our interpreter training programs: Medical Interpreter Training, Legal Interpreter Training or Community & Business Interpreter Training.
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