Should trials in The Bronx be held in Spanish?

Terena Bell
4 min readJan 24, 2019
In The Bronx, juries are harder to fill due to a requirement that members speak English — even when all other parties involved speak Spanish.

The Bronx’s jury shortage has a relatively simple fix. If New York courts are brave enough to try it, the solution would speed up trials, make verdicts more accurate, and save taxpayers more than $4 million a year. So what is it? Trials in Spanish.

Jodi Morales, an attorney with The Bronx Defenders — a public defense organization, says there’s no legal reason why court proceedings are restricted to English. Unlike other countries, the United States does not have an official language. English is what’s most spoken nationwide, so the courts and other government institutions use it by default. But Spanish is gaining: More Spanish speakers now live in the US than in Spain. In communities like The Bronx, Spanish is already lingua franca: Less than half of those who live there speak English. As a result, the borough has a linguistically-broken judicial system that no longer mirrors the population it was designed to serve.

The Bronx’s current jury shortage is evidence of the break. New York Judiciary Law 510 requires jurors “be able to understand and communicate in the English language.” This fluency is required even when no one involved with the case speaks it. “Everybody spoke Spanish,” an anonymous juror told Quartz (where this article was originally published), referencing a trial he sat June 2017: “The defendant, the witnesses, all of us on the jury.” But because of §510, taxpayers paid an interpreter $300 a day to interpret proceedings into English — incorrectly, he adds: “At one point [the interpreter] said something and we all just looked at each other because we knew that wasn’t what the [witness] said.”

Bilingual herself, Morales says errors are rare but when they happen, “The judge will tell the jury, ‘Even if you have an understanding of the language, whatever the interpreter says is the evidence’” — even if the mistake completely changes the case.

Angel Gonzalez, wrongly convicted of rape due to translation error.

And for Angel Gonzalez, it did. In Waukegan, Illinois, Vanessa Potkin, Director of Post-Conviction Litigation for The Innocence Project, says translation error lead to Gonzalez’s wrongful conviction. He spent over 20 years in prison for a rape he didn’t…

Terena Bell

Reporter & fiction writer; series editor, Writing Through the Classics; short story editor for hire; sponsor more writing here: