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reed magazine logoAutumn 2009

Interpreting the Law

Connie Emerson Crooker ’69 was standing in the Multnomah County Courthouse when she consented to a suggestion that reset the course of her life.

It was 1977. With a newly earned law degree from Northwestern, she had just passed the Oregon bar and opened an office in her home. She was visiting the courthouse to see if there were any defendants who needed a lawyer.


Connie Crooker (left) as rock star and (right) as advocate.

“Do you speak Spanish?” the court administrator asked.

Reed didn’t offer Spanish when Connie was a student. She had majored in art history, studied under the celebrated Lloyd Reynolds, written her thesis on the revival of italic handwriting, and then spent four years being a hippy in the woods before she got the whim to go to law school. (She also played guitar in the rock band Central Nervous System with Richard Crandall ’69.) Her high school Spanish was rusty, to say the least.

“I could read Don Quijote in the original, but I couldn’t have ordered a taco in Tijuana,” she says. But she sensed the woman’s desperation.

“I’ll give it a try,” she said, never suspecting that her destiny lay in that good-natured acquiescence.

To brush up her language skills, Connie studied in a Cuernavaca immersion program, then turned her attention to the problems confronting Spanish-speaking defendants. Thirty years ago, there were few interpreters and no language certification. Defendants often knew nothing of their rights, didn’t understand the court system, and couldn’t communicate with their own lawyers. Connie remembers one case where the police officer who arrested the defendant actually interpreted for him in court!

Today, 32 years later, Connie is widely recognized as a key figure in making the court system less forbidding to non-English speakers. “She made a huge contribution,” says judge Michael O’Brien. “She completely changed the legal landscape for Hispanics in Oregon.”

It was all uphill. She wrote letters to the editor and lobbied for bills that went nowhere. Nothing made a dent—until the case of Santiago Ventura Morales.

Ventura was a young Mixtec farmworker from the Mexican state of Oaxaca who came to Oregon to work in the strawberry fields. In July 1986, a fellow worker was stabbed to death on a farm in rural Clackamas County, and Ventura was accused of the crime. There followed a peculiar trial: the state’s sole eye witness initially testified that he didn’t actually see the stabbing, and Ventura didn’t testify in his own defense. Nonetheless, he was convicted of murder.

After the verdict, some jurors were troubled with second thoughts—there was no physical evidence linking Ventura to the crime. What’s more, Ventura had been given a Spanish interpreter, even though his mother tongue was Mixtec.

The jurors went on Oprah to express their misgivings. This caused a huge national buzz, but cut no ice with the court system; there is no legal provision for a juror changing her mind the next morning.

Meanwhile, a volunteer ESL teacher, convinced of Ventura’s innocence, had recruited attorney Paul de Muniz to take his case. An investigator sent to Mexico learned that a different farmworker had told his aunt and the village curandero: I just killed a guy up in Oregon.

“Not Santiago,” says Connie, who got involved in Ventura’s defense, “but this other guy. This totally other person.”

The press branded it as “The Case of the Wrong Interpreter,” although the key legal issue was that Ventura was never told that he had the right to testify at his own trial. In 1991, his conviction was voided and he was released. (By then, the real killer had vanished; there was no second trial.)

The case finally broke the legal logjam on language issues. “After that case, the pressure was on them to do something,” Connie says. “The state courts and legislature formed a task force on racial and ethnic issues, so that we won.”

Oregon finally mandated testing and certification. Connie formed a Spanish Legal Circle, began publishing the annual Spanish Language Legal Network Directory, and wrote The Art of Legal Interpretation.

Ventura, meanwhile, earned a degree at University of Portland and now works for legal aid helping Oregon farmworkers.

Since closing her practice in 2000, Connie has taught criminal law in Mexico and written a book on gun control. She also plays guitar, skis, and pursues ecstatic dance.

Reed added a Spanish major in 1986. (Gabriel García Márquez had won the Nobel Prize four years before and interest was strong.) Yet it’s possible that, had the major been available when Connie was a student, she never would have pursued this career: she always loved the struggle.

—Martha Gies

reed magazine logoAutumn 2009