Problems with translation slow proceedings in area murder trial

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Correction Appended

A 2006 Oakland murder case faced more interpreting problems Wednesday morning as an alleged murderer underwent direct examination from his lawyer at the Rene C. Davidson Courthouse in Oakland.

Asmerom Gebreselassie, 47, was accused of fatally shooting his sister-in-law Winta Mehari, her mother Regba Baharengasi and her brother Yonas Mehari, then a 17-year-old Berkeley High School student, in the Mehari family's Telegraph Avenue apartment on Thanksgiving Day, while his brother, Tewodros Gebreselassie, 43, was accused of helping plan the shooting.

Although Asmerom Gebreselassie gave a testimony in Ethiopian that was "clear enough," the court decided to continue the direct examination process on Thursday, according to Joni Leventis, the deputy district attorney handling the prosecution. The interpreter confused the jury by translating the testimony in the third person, Leventis said, adding that this type of error is common in English translation of the Ethiopian language.

Asmerom Gebreselassie requested an interpreter from the court during the preliminary hearing in 2008. He, his brother and the Mehari family are all of Eritrean origin.

Prosecutors have said the shooting was an act of revenge in response to the death of Abraham Tewolde - the Gebreselassies' brother and Winta Mehari's husband - in March 2006 and that the brothers suspected Winta Mehari had killed Tewolde to acquire money from his life insurance policy.

The Gebreselassie brothers testified in 2008 that they acted out of self-defense, claiming that the Mehari family attacked the two to prevent them from revealing to the community that Merhawi Mehari, one of Winta Mehari's brothers, was gay. The defendants also claim that Tewolde had revealed to them that Merhawi Mehari was molesting Tewolde and Winta Mehari's two-year-old son, whom the defendants also face charges of kidnapping from the scene of the crime.

The trial has been marred by a variety of factors, Leventis said. Both the defendants and witnesses have cycled through interpreters, creating over 8,000 pages of documents relevant to the trial over the years.

After further delays, the trial was rescheduled to start in May 2010, but it was then again postponed after Asmerom Gebreselassie asked to fire his criminal defense counsel, a motion that Judge Larry Goodman eventually granted, according to Leventis.

Direct and cross examination will continue on Thursday morning when a new interpreter is found for the defendant.

Correction: Sunday, April 10, 2011
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the shooting occurred in Berkeley. In fact, the shooting occurred in Oakland.

The Daily Californian regrets the error.

Contact Damian at [email protected]

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