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Court rules non-English speaking citizens have right to serve on juries

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The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled Monday that the inability to speak or understand English in a meaningful way cannot be used to dismiss a prospective juror from the selection process.

But the decision was not enough to win a new trial for the defendant in the underlying case.

The ruling came in an appeal filed by Michael Samora, who was convicted of first-degree murder in the bludgeoning death of his girlfriend, as well as other crimes.

During the jury selection process, the trial judge noted that one prospective juror, Rojelio Haros, indicated on his jury questionnaire that he did not “understand English [well] enough to write in English” but that he understood what had transpired until that point without an interpreter.

However, at the end of the selection process, “Haros admitted that there was a large part of it that he had not understood,” according to the Supreme Court opinion. Haros was excused, without objection from the defense – a key issue for the high court.

The court held that Haros’ dismissal violated the state constitution, which provides that the right of a citizen to serve on a jury “shall never be restricted, abridged or impaired” due to an “inability to speak, read or write the English or Spanish languages.”

But the justices added that the trial court’s error was not sufficient to warrant a reversal of Samora’s conviction required for unpreserved error.

In this case, the defendant failed to raise the objection at trial and the error failed to meet the fundamental error standard, so Samora’s convictions were affirmed. But the ruling is key because it underscores the state’s position on the rights of Spanish speakers.

Both English and Spanish have been New Mexico’s official languages since 1912.

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