Police Hired Food Stall Owner to Translate Murder Confession

Haifa police slammed for poor translation of Chinese murder suspect.

Supreme Court Justice Yoram Danziger yesterday blasted the Haifa police for recruiting the owner of a Chinese food stall, whose son works for the police, as a simultaneous interpreter in the interrogation four years ago of a Chinese-born murder suspect.

The suspect, Honchian Lin, was convicted of murdering his Filipina girlfriend, Michelle Jamias, and dismembering her body. It recently came to light that the stall-owner, known as Joe, was chosen to act as an interpreter because his establishment was near the police station, in the central Haifa neighborhood of Hadar.

chinese - Daniel Bar-On - November 4 2010
Daniel Bar-On

The reprimand came during Honchian's appeal of his murder conviction, which the Supreme Court rejected.

The translation of Lin's statement from his initial interrogation is disjointed, unclear in many places and frequently at least two people are speaking at once. Lin, who is from a rural area of China and knew only a few sentences of broken Hebrew, was not familiar with the dialect spoken by Joe.

"The police were obligated to check and to ascertain in advance Joe's suitability as an interpreter, which apparently was not done. From viewing the video of the interrogation as well as examining the interview transcript, it appears that the translation during the initial police questioning was degraded and unclear," Danziger said yesterday. The justice said that the flaws were material and that they may have been sufficient to disqualify Lin's first confession to the police, on the grounds that his right to due process were violated.

Jamias' murder was one of the most shocking to have occurred in Israel in the past several years. In early November Lin traveled from Ramat Gan to Haifa, with an ax, cable-tie handcuffs and plastic bags. In the evening he called Jamias, his girlfriend, and asked to come to her apartment. When they met, he accused her of seeing other men and then hit her in the head with the ax approximately 20 times, killing her. Lin then cut her into five pieces that he placed in plastic bags and tossed into garbage cans on a nearby street.

A passerby who fed cats in Hadar contacted police when he saw one of the bags in a trash can the following day.

Lin confessed to the murder, with Joe serving as interpreter, several hours after his arrest, and reenacted the incident for police. He confessed again in a second interrogation, conducted about three weeks after the first, but during his trial he recanted and claimed that on the day of the murder he was in the center of the country, far from Haifa, with friends. He claimed that both confessions were made under duress, under pressure from investigators. Lin's claims were refuted and additional evidence, apart from his confessions, tied him to the murder.

Danziger told the court yesterday that he sought to place a "warning signal" before the law enforcement authorities, including the Israel Police and the state prosecution, to cause them to respect a suspects' right to plead and the right to fair process by guaranteeing effective translation services to every suspect.

The simultaneous interpreter who reported to Supreme Court deliberations on Lin's appeal a few months ago also ran into trouble; he speaks Mandarin, while Lin speaks a dialect common to the rural region where he was raised.

Lin's public defender, Tal Aner, said yesterday that the Public Defender's Office ofte runs into cases in which the police, who have difficulty finding suitable interpreters for suspects who speak a foreign language, goes for easy solutions, with the outcome like that in Lin's case: a "dialogue of the deaf" in the initial questioning of a murder suspect.

According to Hannah Zohar, director of Kav La'Oved, the state makes millions of shekels every year from bringing and employing foreign workers to Israel but fails to allocate funds to see to their needs, including translation and interpretation services.

"I don't understand how workers are brought to Israel legally without a proper translation infrastructure. Now people are being brought from Vietnam and Sri Lanka, and the problem is even more pressing. We constantly encounter cases of foreign workers who don't understand what a doctor has told them and as a result there are misdiagnoses. In court, too. We saw a worker who received a harsh verdict, and we suspect it was the result of poor translation."