Carlos Gonzalez seemed the model interpreter at the Reno courthouse. Well-dressed, hard-working and respected by judges, defense lawyers and prosecutors, he rose to the level of translating testimony in a death-penalty trial. With a resume listing degrees from the Universities of San Diego, Arizona and Madrid, Gonzalez appeared superbly trained to translate for the increasing number of Hispanics flowing through the Nevada justice system. He always seemed to go the extra mile for everyone," said Dona Jeppson, administrator for the Reno Justice Court. "He would walk defendants out of the courtroom and help them fill out paperwork at the cashier's office."
What somehow got lost in the translation, however, was that Gonzalez was a convicted sex offender from San Diego required to report his crimes. Not only did Gonzalez neglect to mention his criminal background when he applied for work in the courthouse, but he lied about his qualifications and falsified his credentials, according to Nevada officials. The 32-year-old former San Diegan was in the Reno jail yesterday after his arrest last week on three felonies, including perjury.
Gonzalez's arrest shocked the people he worked with, but it also infuriated the small community of certified court interpreters both in Nevada and California. It has raised serious concerns about government hiring practices and about whether Gonzalez, who does not have the training and has not passed tests required of certified interpreters, compromised the legal rights of dozens of people accused of crimes. Gonzalez apparently moved to Nevada after serving six months of a one-year jail term in San Diego for having sexual relationships with three 15-year-old girls. He was convicted in 1993 of misconduct while a teacher's aide at Serra High School.
Gonzalez opened an interpreting business in Reno as the court system in the community struggled to cope with an increasing number of cases involving Hispanics who could not speak English. Gonzalez's skills were approved by two bilingual judges, and he contracted his interpreting services with the district attorney and public defender, working for about nine months before his arrest. "He had clearance to go in and out of jail and talk to prisoners, and it was our understanding that anyone who could do that had to have passed a background check, but now we know that isn't so," Jeppson said.
Everyone is having a hard time (dealing with Gonzalez's arrest) because he was so presentable and so professional," she said. "He always dressed nice. We used to compliment him on the beautiful ties he wore. "He was always polite and considerate and would stay the extra hour to make sure everything was finished before he left. It's just hard to understand."
Reno officials said interpreters are chosen after being screened by judges, the District Attorney's Office or the Public Defender's Office. Gonzalez's credentials first were questioned after the Public Defender's Office got complaints that he was paraphrasing, rather than translating literally. Suspicious, they investigated. "We found out that he never went to the colleges he claimed to have attended and that he lied about his background," said Public Defender Mike Specchio. "We fired him and turned the information over to the District Attorney's Office."
Prosecutor Egan Walker said Gonzalez is accused of lying under oath about his background during two court hearings, one of them the death-penalty trial. The defendant in the capital case ultimately was convicted and sentenced to death for murdering his daughter, but Specchio said it is unlikely that Gonzalez's work in that case compromised the conviction because another interpreter worked with him on case. Specchio said his office is reviewing other cases on which Gonzalez worked.
Gonzalez's lawyer, Scott Freeman, said his client didn't do anything wrong because, unlike California and some other states, Nevada's state courts do not require certification of translators. "The guy was one of the most respected translators here and the DA charges him because they're embarrassed to find out that he was working for them and they hadn't checked on him," Freeman said. "They're just acting to be vindictive. Everybody was happy with him until they found out he had a sex offense in his background, which is not a very popular crime but bears no reflection on the excellent job he did here."
Gonzalez's case was raised last weekend at a San Diego meeting of the Judicial Council of California's Court Interpreters Advisory Panel. Richard Weatherby, president of the association, cited the case in urging the council to require strict checking of credentials and the use of photo identification cards. Gonzalez used the ID number of a California interpreter without her permission and bounced checks at the association's convention in Anaheim last October, Weatherby said. The association reported the incident to the Orange County District Attorney, he said. "Our problem with cases like this is that, in addition to the bad light it casts on the profession, it is too easy for someone to pass himself off as California court-certified," Weatherby said. Gonzalez is still on probation for his 1993 conviction and could be returned to San Diego to serve an additional two years in jail for violating that probation. Prosecutors here said they were reviewing the case.