Criminal Justice

Twelve years after his arrest, accused murderer remains incompetent for trial because he can't talk

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A deaf man who can’t read, write or speak more than a few words is considered incompetent to stand trial on a 2005 murder charge.

The man, 45-year-old Oswaldo Martinez, is charged with the rape and strangulation death of a 16-year-old girl who was walking alongside a country road in James City County, Virginia, in January 2005, the Washington Post reports. In 2013, a judge declared Martinez “unrestorably incompetent” to stand trial because he can’t communicate and is unable to assist in his defense.

DNA evidence links Martinez to the rape and murder of the teen, Brittany Binger. And a lot number on a juice bottle found near Binger’s body was traced to a nearby convenience store, where security video showed Martinez buying juice around the time of the slaying.

Martinez entered the country illegally from El Salvador about a year before the crime. He is being held in a secure state hospital, where efforts to teach him sign language have not succeeded. Experts say he needed to learn fluent sign language decades earlier during a critical childhood period for learning language. Children who aren’t exposed to language during this period do not develop the required brain circuitry.

Experts also held mock trials to try to teach Martinez how his case would be decided, but he “would saunter into the bathroom” once he figured out what was going on, according to a state psychiatrist.

Martinez’s lawyer, Timothy Clancy, is arguing the case should be dismissed because of violations of his client’s right to a speedy trial, due process and equal protection.

The prosecutor, Commonwealth’s Attorney Nathan Green, argues that a provision of the state’s competency law allows suspects to be held indefinitely without a trial when charged with a capital crime. The law says capital defendants can be imprisoned “without limitation” while undergoing “medically appropriate” treatment.

Clancy says the provision is unconstitutional.

Green tells the Washington Post he has declined to seek deportation because “justice would not be served.” And U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has not shown any eagerness to take custody, he said.

An ICE spokesperson told the Post that, because Martinez can’t communicate, “ICE has been unable to verify his alienage or potential for removability.”

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