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New trial ordered because juror's English was poor

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

MADISON, Wis. -- A man convicted of sexual assault will get a new trial because a juror could not understand English well enough to competently hear the case, the state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

Michael W. Carlson, 32, of Spirit Lake, Iowa, appealed after he was sentenced to 14 years in prison for second-degree sexual assault as a repeat offender in May 2000.

The state Supreme Court said evidence presented at a post-conviction hearing demonstrated Tony Vera, a Laotian immigrant who has been in the United States for 20 years, could not understand English.

"His stated inability to understand English prevented him from meaningful participation in the trial process," the court said.

According to court records, Vera was sent a questionnaire as a prospective juror that included this question: "Can you understand the English language?" Vera checked "no."

The answer should have automatically disqualified him from jury duty, but Vera's name was accidentally included on a list of potential jurors. At Carlson's trial, lawyers didn't quiz Vera on the language question, assuming all the potential jurors had checked "yes." He landed on the jury.

Jurors raised concerns about Vera's understanding of English once they began deliberating the case, but Judge Michael Grzeca took no action, and the jury found Carlson guilty.

Judge Mark Warpinski, who presided over the postconviction hearing, denied Carlson's request for a new trial.

Vera testified at the hearing that he didn't understand everything that was going on at the trial. But Warpinski concluded that the limited English that Vera demonstrated showed "sufficient understanding" for him to have served as a juror. The appeals court affirmed that decision in 2001.

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