Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Prosecutors to appeal dismissal of rape case

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A Liberian immigrant accused of raping a 7-year-old girl may not be off the hook, despite a Montgomery County judge’s decision last week to drop the charges because of delays in the case.

Prosecutors will try to overturn the ruling in the state Court of Special Appeals, said Seth Zucker, a spokesman for Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy.

Circuit Court Judge Katherine Savage dropped charges against Mahamu Kanneh of Gaithersburg on July 17, saying that his right to a speedy trial had been violated by delays after his August 2004 arrest.

Kanneh’s lawyer contended that he needed an interpreter who spoke Vai, a tribal language from northwestern Liberia and Sierra Leone, to understand the legal proceedings.

Prosecutors disagreed, protesting that Kanneh spoke English and graduated high school and attended community college in Montgomery County.

The claims sparked an outcry from some Liberian immigrants who say the language barrier claim is not valid and is a ploy to beat the legal system.

English is the official language of Liberia, a West African nation whose inhabitants include descendants of slaves resettled from the United States. But about 16 indigenous languages are also spoken there.

Conflicts have disrupted many institutions, including education in Liberia, but immigrants say English, albeit sometimes broken, is spoken even in villages.

‘‘If he went to school in Liberia and is literate he should speak English,” said Rev. Albert Nebo of Atlanta, Ga., one of many immigrants who called local officials and the Liberian embassy to decry the dismissal of charges against Kanneh.

‘‘We may have an accent, but we speak English,” said Nebo, who immigrated in 1982 and is a pastor at All Nations Church in Atlanta.

Vai interpreters were found for the case between 2004 and 2007, but one withdrew and another was dismissed.

At a Feb. 16 hearing a Vai interpreter was on hand, but Judge Eric Johnson postponed the proceedings because the interpreter got sick, said Circuit Court Clerk Loretta Knight, whose office had contacted a state court interpreter program administrator to find translators.

On Feb. 23, Kanneh’s lawyer, public defender Theresa Chernosky, filed a motion protesting the delay, Knight said.

When the case resumed five months later, on July 12 and 17, a Vai interpreter was in the courtroom when the defense moved to dismiss the case, Knight said.

‘‘There was an interpreter in the court ... actually aiding in the motion when the case was dismissed,” Zucker said.

State public defenders office spokeswoman Kimberlee Schultz said Chernosky is not responding to questions about the case.

In a written statement Schultz said the court determined Kanneh ‘‘could not understand these legal proceedings without an interpreter and one could not be provided. ... that the defendant is treated fairly and afforded due process ... is the very least that anyone is provided under our system of justice.”

Montgomery County Public Schools spokesman Brian Edwards said Kanneh graduated from the evening high school based at Col. Zadok Magruder High School in Rockville in 2005.

It is not clear that Kanneh attended Montgomery College.

‘‘We don’t know if he’s registered,” said Steve Simon, a Montgomery College spokesman. ‘‘We don’t have his name in our system.”

Staff Writer Marcus Moore contributed to this report.