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Trial for deaf defendant presented 'unique' challenges

Among the first words said by prosecutor and Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Broten during her closing arguments in the Maryland School for the Deaf child sexual abuse case were "unique" and "unusual."

On Wednesday, that trial came to a unique and unusual conclusion as a Howard County Circuit Court jury, after more than 10 hours of deliberation, returned a mixed verdict to the seven counts of child sexual abuse the defendant, Clarence Cepheus Taylor III, was charged with.

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Taylor, 38, who is deaf, was convicted of two counts, acquitted of one and handed no-decisions on the remaining four counts, which will likely be retried in May.

"It was very challenging," Broten said of prosecuting the case, which hinged on the testimony of the seven female victims, all of whom are deaf, as well as a four-plus hour Howard County police interrogation of Taylor, which was done through an American Sign Language interpreter.

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"We have devoted a lot of time, energy and resources to bring the case to justice," she said.

The trial, which began on Oct. 28, accused Taylor of groping the buttocks, breasts and vaginas and, in some instances kissing the lips, of seven girls, aged 10 to 13 at the time, while working as an aide at the school's Columbia campus from 2008 to 2011.

Three charges of solicitation of child pornography, which stemmed from Taylor allegedly texting some of the victims asking for photos of their breasts, were dropped by the State's Attorney's office after the prosecution could not confirm the messages were exchanged in Howard County.

The trial required the services of four sign language interpreters tasked with signing everything said in the courtroom and speaking everything signed by deaf witnesses or the defendant.

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The process often resulted in prolonged silence between questions and answers, occasional interuptions and corrections by the interpreters, and also contributed to over 80 private conferences between attorneys from both sides at Judge William V. Tucker's bench.

"It's a challenge because you can never get into an exact flow of asking questions and it's also difficult because you don't really get inflection in someone's voice," said Brandon Mead, Taylor's defense attorney.

"One of the things I found in talking to members of the deaf community is that the community is very blunt and straightforward in how they communicate to one another because there is no room for sarcasm or a joke. In our day-to-day speech, inflection has a lot to do with how words are said and received."

Mead also said adding interpreters makes it more difficult for the jury to evaluate the credibility, body language and tone of a witness.

"People tend to draw their attention to someone who is speaking, so there is a possibility the jury was focusing on the interpreter instead of focusing on the witness, their mannerisms and reactions to questions," Mead said. "In my opening statement, I wanted to make sure they focused on the stand."

The case became further convoluted after Taylor took the stand in his defense. Taylor refuted statements of guilt made during his police interview, a video of which was shown to the jury, by stating the interpreter skewed his responses and that he occasionally misunderstood questions.

During the police interview, two interpreters were used, one hearing and one hearing impaired, which Mead said was not enough.

According to police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn, it is police procedure to bring in at least one interpreter.

"During the trial, you saw the interpreters correct one another. You saw the need to have four individuals going back and forth, stopping, correcting and clarifying," Mead said. "That was a significant issue in his interrogation. There wasn't that and we weren't given the appropriate opportunity to address that."

Broten said she disagreed there was anything "lost in translation."

During cross-examination, Taylor waffled in his responses to Broten's questions. At times, he communicated he may have accidentally touched the girls in passing, while other times he adamantly denied the incidents happened.

Broten said she did not how much the jury weighed his testimony, but that attacking inconsistences is part of any trial.

"When you are confronted in the courtroom with conflicting stories, or a story that changes from a previous interview, that's something you have to delve into as a trial attorney," she said.

This story has been updated. 

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