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Helping Hispanics

Witness coordinator breaks through language barrier.

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When Antonio Sanders was found guilty of murdering Teadoro Mata last week, José Leon with the Shelby County district attorney general's office was instrumental in helping get the conviction. But he's not a lawyer. He's the office's Hispanic victim witness coordinator.

Criminals have targeted local Hispanics because they are generally less likely to report crimes to police due to the language barrier and a fear of immigration officials. They also tend to carry large amounts of cash on them.

Sanders shot Mata in November 2001 during a home-invasion robbery. He spoke a few words of Spanish, then entered the duplex where seven Hispanic men lived. Mata was shot three times before Sanders' gun jammed and the other victims restrained the assailant.

Leon said the Hispanic community is also less likely to testify against criminals during court cases. That's something his position was created three years ago to change.

"It's easier to get robbed on Monday and on Tuesday move out instead of testifying," said Leon. "Some [victims] are so scared they won't even look at the [suspect] while they're on the stand. Sometimes we have to take them to shelters."

In the legal system, Leon is the victim's best friend. He helps them access the Tennessee Criminal Compensation Fund where victims can get up to $30,000 to help with medical bills and other expenses. He lets them know when to come to court and takes them to meet with prosecutors.

"This position was created because there was no one capable of speaking to the Spanish-speaking witnesses," said Leon. "Investigators downstairs try to call witnesses and they're like, 'Huh?' Everyone tries to use their high school and college Spanish. [The witness'] Spanish might not be very good, either. He may speak a Guatemalan dialect like Mam. There are 23 dialects," That's when Leon gets involved. "The investigators will say, 'I can't speak to him. I don't speak Spanish. Or Mam.' They'll stamp 'Hispanic' on the file."

Leon said he often explains that he is not with immigration. He does work with them: The office issues ID cards to undocumented immigrants if they're the victim of, or a witness to, a crime. The card includes their name, address, photo, and fingerprint and asks that they not be deported because they are helping the D.A.'s office. After the trial, the card is revoked.

"I tell them that you can still get a DUI with this card," he said. "It's not a get-out-of-jail-free card."

If the victim or witness chooses to return to his country of origin, Leon can also arrange to have them escorted into the country and out again after trial. In one recent case, the witness had returned to Mexico. While Leon was trying to arrange with immigration to get him back to Memphis, Leon found out the witness had already returned on his own.

Leon also speaks to Hispanic groups about issues such as domestic violence and the district attorney's office. Of course, sometimes the message doesn't quite translate, and his listeners believe it his job to help them with any problem. He said that people have called him and asked where they can get their car tags renewed. Even Spanish-speaking inmates have asked him to call their wives and tell them to bring more cigarettes on their next visit.

At one point, Leon said, "Anyone who had a criminal issue was calling." People on trial were even asking him for help. "I had to explain that we are prosecutors," he said. "We prosecute offenders. People had gotten the wrong idea." n

E-mail: cashiola@memphisflyer.com

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